Fineline Unique Pte Ltd and others v Koh Shou Wen and Erin Chua Qianyi
|Lim Wee Ming
|11 September 2020
| SGDC 207
|District Court (Singapore)
|08 January 2020,27 March 2020,07 January 2020,15 June 2020,10 January 2020,09 January 2020,24 September 2019
|District Court Suit No 2163 of 2018, District Court Appeal No 19 of 2020
|Mr Mark Lee (WMH Law Corporation)
|Mr Clarence Tan (UniLegal LLC)
|Tort - Defamation,Defamatory statements,Justification
|20 January 2021
The plaintiffs’ claim is based on defamatory statements made by the defendants, arising from renovation works carried out by the plaintiffs, at the defendants’ home. The defendants also had a counterclaim arising from the plaintiffs’ renovation works.
I dismissed both the plaintiffs’ claim and the defendants’ counterclaim. The plaintiffs have appealed against my decision.Facts
The defendants are husband and wife. The defendants had in August 2017, engaged the first plaintiff to carry out renovation works at their new condominium unit at Canberra Drive. The first plaintiff is part of the Fineline Group of Companies (“the Fineline Group”), which include the second to fifth plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs were recommended by Qanvast, an online home renovation platform connecting homeowners with interior designers. In June 2017, the defendants met the plaintiffs’ Aloysius Pek (“Aloysius”). The defendants dealt with Aloysius until February 2018, when they expressed their unhappiness with Aloysius to the plaintiffs. Samuel Chong (“Samuel”) then took over from Aloysius, who subsequently left the plaintiffs’ employment.
According to the plaintiffs’ senior project designer, Sim Hock Chong, otherwise known as “Roger”, the defendants wanted the following works to be done:
Roger’s evidence was that the total eventual contract value was for the sum of $11,852.50.2
According to the defendants, there were delays and defects in the renovation works. They also complained about the plaintiffs’ unfulfilled promises and lack of oversight. The defendants repeatedly approached the plaintiffs to resolve their concerns, but little was done to address the defendants’ complaints.
In May 2018, the defendants published online articles on the plaintiffs, in Google Review and Hometrust.sg. The statements relied upon by the plaintiffs against the defendants are as follows:
The plaintiffs’ case is that the statements made by the defendants as set out above are defamatory in their natural and ordinary meaning, in that they meant that:
The defendants’ position is that the statements meant that:
The defendants further rely on the defence of justification.Issues
The key issues at the trial, were:
The general principles applicable to the construction of words based on their natural and ordinary meanings are as follows:
- the natural and ordinary meaning of a word is that which is conveyed to an ordinary reasonable person;
- as the test is objective, the meaning which the defendant intended to convey is irrelevant;
- the ordinary reasonable reader is not avid for scandal but can read between the lines and draw inferences;
- where there are a number of possible interpretations, some of which may be non-defamatory, such a reader will not seize on only the defamatory one;
- the ordinary reasonable reader is treated as having read the publication as a whole in determining its meaning, thus “the bane and the antidote must be taken together”; and
- the ordinary reasonable reader will take note of the circumstances and manner of the publication.
In relation to the plaintiffs’ case that the statements made by the defendants are defamatory in that they meant that the plaintiffs had misrepresented, defrauded or had been dishonest with the defendants, I find that the statements made by the defendant do not make out this meaning claimed by the plaintiffs.
In particular, the statements relied upon by the plaintiffs against the defendants, do not mean that the plaintiffs had misrepresented, defrauded or had been dishonest with the defendants. The statement “Now, after almost 7 months of dealing with them, finally realised a lot of things they also cannot make it” puts into context the subsequent statement “Worst ID experience. Do not be fooled by their honeyed sweet worded sales tactics”.7
Read together, the statements merely mean that the plaintiffs’ promises made in pitching for sales to their customers should not be trusted, as the work done and service provided fell short of what was promised. In essence, the defendants’ statements mean that the plaintiffs had over promised and under delivered. Although the defendants’ evidence was that they “felt cheated”8, it is the objective meaning of the words that were used by the defendants that is crucial, rather than how the defendants felt, in deciding the meaning of the defendants’ statements.
As for the plaintiffs’ case that the defendants’ statements mean that the Fineline Group are unreliable, negligent, unprofessional and
The issue then is whether the defendants have established their defence of justification.
To succeed in a plea of justification, the defendant need only prove that the substance or gist of the offending words (as opposed to those parts of the offending words which do not add to the sting of the alleged defamation) is true …
In the Court of Appeal decision of
The defendant has only to prove the “sting” of the charge, and some leeway for exaggeration and error is given. As stated by Burrough J in
Edwards v Bell(1824) 1 Bing 403 at 409:… it is sufficient if the substance of the libellous statement be justified; it is unnecessary to repeat every word which might have been the subject of the original comment. As much must be justified as meets the sting of the charge, and if anything be contained in a charge which does not add to the sting of it, that need not be justified.
In the present case, the sting of the libel was that the Fineline Group are unreliable, negligent, unprofessional and incompetent.
When deciding the issue of justification, I have to decide whether a sufficient proportion of the allegations made … were factually correct. … So the question which I have to decide is whether the defendants made good on a balance of probabilities the sting of the libel is substantially true. The defendants do not need to prove each and every word is true.
In support of their defence of justification, the defendants raised the following key points:
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