Phan Ying Sheng v Yeow Khim Seng Mark

JudgeWong Peck
Judgment Date15 December 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] SGDC 286
CourtDistrict Court (Singapore)
Docket NumberDistrict Court Suit No 1655 of 2019
Published date15 January 2021
Hearing Date24 September 2020,06 October 2020,25 August 2020
Plaintiff CounselSuresh Divyanathan and Cherisse Foo (Oon & Bazul LLP)
Defendant CounselLuo Ling Ling (Luo Ling Ling LLC)
Subject MatterTORT,Defamation,Defamatory statements
Citation[2020] SGDC 286
District Judge Wong Peck: Introduction

The plaintiff brought the present action against the defendant for defamation relating to four statements made by the defendant in writing that were published during the period of 5 January 2019 to 22 May 2019. The statements are posted on Facebook and WhatsApp chat group.

According to the plaintiff, she is a well-known social media personality who creates content in the motorcycling and travel industry, and this is a source of her livelihood. She is also a verified public figure on Facebook and Instagram. As at 24 March 2020, she has over 50,000 followers. The defendant is a motorcycle enthusiast who works as the chief mechanic of Modern Vespa Singapore as well as the Operations Director of MarkMoto. The defamatory statements were made in relation to a dispute that the plaintiff had with a motorcycle workshop known as Revology Bikes Pte Ltd (“ Revology”) in which the plaintiff had received compensation from Revology for damage caused to her motorcycle, a Ducati 899 Panigale, when a camera was installed by Revology unto her motorcycle. The compensation was paid pursuant to a Small Claims Tribunal (“SCT”) ruling made in favour of the plaintiff in SCT/20691/2018.

After hearing the evidence and considering the parties’ submissions, I decide to grant an injunction ordering the defendant to remove the defamatory statements and for the defendant to be restrained from further publishing similar defamatory statements. As the statements referring to the plaintiff are indeed defamatory and have been published to a large number of users, I grant judgment in favour of the plaintiff in the sum of $40,000 for general damages and a sum of $20,000 for aggravated damages with the usual statutory interest from date of writ to judgment for the said sums. I decline to award special damages resulting from the termination of the plaintiff’s collaboration with Samsung as the plaintiff has not proven on a balance of probabilities that Samsung has terminated their contract due to the defendant’s defamatory statements. I set out the grounds for my decision below.

Facts The parties

I will first provide a general sequence of events which facilitates better understanding of the issues that are before this Court for determination. In October 2018, Revology offered the plaintiff a camera to be installed without payment unto her motorcycle in return for the plaintiff reviewing the camera. After the plaintiff accepted the offer, she brought her motorcycle to Revology’s workshop for the installation on 18 October 2018. On 25 October 2018, the plaintiff put up a promotional post for Revology in her Instagram, but the post has since been removed.

On 19 November 2018, the plaintiff serviced her motorcycle at Bikeworkz Pte Ltd (“Bikeworkz”) which indicated that no damage was caused to the plaintiff’ motorcycle due the installation. Subsequently, as the plaintiff encountered several issues with the camera, Mr Darren Sim Hon Kiat, a director of Revology informed the plaintiff to return the camera and replace it with a new one.

On the 4 December 2018, the plaintiff visited Revology premises to effect the replacement. In the process of removing and reinstalling the camera, the plaintiff claimed that her motorcycle was damaged in that the process resulted in a sizeable gap between the body of the motorcycle and the fairings. On 5 December 2018, she informed Mr Sim of this issue. On 6 December 2018, she published a blog post of her disappointing experience. On 7 December 2018, she brought her motorcycle to Bikeworkz for inspection and the mechanic found the left and right front catch of the fairings were broken. She then took pictures and sent them to Mr Sim. On the same day, Mr Jerome Lee Jian Rong, another director of Revology contacted the plaintiff and admitted that the issue was caused by his staff’s negligence. On 8 December 2018, Mr Lee offered compensation to the plaintiff provided she removed her media posts and would state that the incident was due to a misunderstanding. The plaintiff rejected the offer.

The plaintiff issued a letter of demand to Revology on 12 December 2018. This was followed by a SCT claim filed on 21 December 2018. On 30 December 2018, the plaintiff published a Facebook post with a link documenting the incident with Revology.

On 5 January 2019, the defendant posted the first defamatory statement in the comments section of the plaintiff’s Facebook post of 30 December 2018. In the post, the defendant called the plaintiff “cheapskate”, “freeloader” and a “poser”. He also accused her of cyber bullying. On 27 February 2019, he published the second defamatory statement in his Facebook page. In essence, he questioned the plaintiff’s integrity and whether a gap in the fairings caused during a visit to the bike shop was a lie. He also stated that “karma is also real”. He also tagged the plaintiff’s past, present and potential sponsors, business partners and other motorcycle workshops. In or around March 2019, the defendant published the third defamatory statement in a WhatsApp group chat which the plaintiff claimed has at least 40 members. There is also a link to the defendant’s second defamatory statement in his Facebook post. In this chat, the defendant stated “Vauhne Phan cheating ah? (laughing face emoji) Karma coming soon”.

The Small Claims Tribunal decided in the plaintiff’s favour and ordered Revology to pay $4,630 for the replacement of the fairings and repair of the motorcycle. On 5 April 2019, Revology paid the damages as ordered.

On or around April 2019, the plaintiff contracted with Cohn & Wolfe XPR Pte Ltd (“C&W”) to appear in an advertisement to promote a new Samsung mobile phone. This advertisement was then posted on Samsung’s Facebook page.

A letter of demand was sent by the plaintiff’s former lawyers to the defendant to remove the first and second defamatory statements. On 22 May 2019, the defendant using a Facebook account under the name of “Singapore Team Tmax” posted the fourth defamatory statement as a comment on Samsung’s Facebook post. In this comment addressed to Samsung, the defendant stated that Samsung should do homework and fact finding before hiring an influencer and there are plenty of capable young men/women who can show Samsung what dirt biking means. On 24 May 2019, C&W informed the plaintiff of the defendant’s fourth defamatory post and removed the advertisement featuring the plaintiff from Samsung’s Facebook page. C&W terminated the contract with the plaintiff.

A total of five witnesses gave evidence in court. Other than the plaintiff, the four defendant’s witnesses were Muhammad Hidayat bin Ahmad Harini (“Hidayat” who is a trader in motorcycle parts as owner of Yatz Industries), Tony Alfred Desire Devaux (“Devaux” who works for Ducati), Darren Sim (a director of Revology) and the defendant.

The parties’ cases The plaintiff’s version

The plaintiff takes the position that all four statements are defamatory in their ordinary and natural meaning. Alternatively, for the third and fourth statements, these were defamatory by way of innuendo. These statements have adversely affected the plaintiff’s reputation. Although the defendant had pleaded the defence of justification, this defence directly goes against the ruling of the SCT which found Revology liable to pay compensation to the plaintiff for damage caused to her motorcycle. The District Court is in no position to review the decision of the SCT. The defamatory statements have not only caused the plaintiff distress as the defendant acted maliciously against her, the statements have also caused her direct monetary loss. Hence, the plaintiff should be compensated with general and aggravated damages as well as special damages. Other than removal of the first and second defamatory statements, an injunction should also be issued against the defendant for posting further similar defamatory statements about the plaintiff.

The defendant’s version

The defendant’s position is that the statements are not defamatory in their ordinary and natural meaning1. The defendant also alleges that the plaintiff’s popularity has already been waning. Even if the statements are defamatory, the defence of justification applies2. For the first defamatory post, the plaintiff had accepted Revology’s camera for free and his word” cheapskate” refers to her accepting this free gift and service from Revology. According to the defendant, the plaintiff used her position as a social media personality to make negative comments on Revology without first reaching out to Revology for a resolution makes for a case of cyber bullying. Her popularity has also been declining among motorcycle workshops. As for the second defamatory statement, his position is that the gap between the body of the motorcycle and the fairings were not caused by Revology, but these were pre-existing gaps. This is because the plaintiff had replaced the motorcycle’s original fairings with replica fairings which are less durable. As for the third defamatory statement, the defendant contends that he had intended to downplay the seriousness of the plaintiff’s actions with a laughing emoji. As for the fourth defamatory statement, his explanation is that it was a comment for Samsung to feature a more experienced dirt biker in order to improve their outreach.

Issues to be determined

The issues before the Court are as follows: Are the four statements made by the defendant defamatory in their ordinary and natural meaning? If the four statements are defamatory in their ordinary and natural meaning, has the defendant established a defence that the defamatory statements do not lower the plaintiff’s reputation, and has he made out a defence of justification? If the defendant is liable, what are the reliefs to be granted by the Court?

Issue 1: Are the four statements made by the defendant defamatory in their ordinary...

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