The Queensland District Court recently determined whether calling someone “Dennis Denuto” can be considered defamatory. Apparently it can, however in this case the defendant successfully argued the statutory defence of triviality, in that the plaintiff was unlikely to suffer any harm due to the limited publication of the comments.
Putting aside the obvious hilarity for a moment, as I read the judgment two things stood out for me:
- That the insecurities of a new husband appear to have started this whole sorry mess, which has obviously destroyed a cordial relationship between a divorced couple. The real victims in these kinds of situations, as always, will be the children of the separated couple.
- That the plaintiff, as an experienced lawyer, has acted in a way that I would consider petty and unprofessional. Lawyers already have a bad name, and going out and trying to sue someone in these circumstances comes across as threatening and abusive.
If you haven’t had a chance to read this yet, take a look here: Smith v Lucht  QDC 289 (20 November 2015).
A lawyer’s explanation of “Dennis Denuto”
I love deadpan humour, and so I am frequently amused when the court explains a concept in a way that is completely devoid of any enthusiasm or flourish.
And so, at paragraph  of the judgment, the court explains who Dennis Denuto is:
“Dennis Denuto is a central character in the popular Australian film The Castle, which relates the fictional story of Dale Kerrigan and his family’s fight against the compulsory acquisition of their home. Dennis Denuto is the Kerrigan’s solicitor. He is portrayed as likeable and well-intentioned, but inexperienced in matters of constitutional law and not qualified to appear in person in litigation of that nature. His appearance in the Federal Court portrayed him as unprepared, lacking in knowledge and judgment, incompetent and unprofessional. His submission concerning ‘the vibe’ is a well-known line from the film.”
While this is a very concise definition, but this is how I remember him:
So what actually happened in this case?
To keep it super brief: a couple got married, had children, and got divorced. After they divorced they managed to get to a point where they got along well enough to act in the best interests of their children (see paragraph ). The court pointed to an email from the ex-wife which suggested that they were happy at their progress of their relationship.
The ex-wife remarried, and afterwards the new husband argued with the ex-wife about her ongoing contact with the ex-husband, in front of the daughter (see paragraph ). After this argument, the wife emailed the ex-husband to clarify their relationship, and to tell him that they were not friends.
This obviously triggered a series of events which resulted in the deterioration of the relationship.
The new husband’s father was a lawyer, and subsequently got involved by acting for the ex-wife (now his daughter-in-law).
In was in these circumstances that the ex-husband emailed the ex-wife and referred to the father-in-law as Dennis Denuto. He also verbally referred to the father-in-law as Denni Denuto to the ex-wife and new husband, and once again just to the new husband.
The father-in-law then sued for $250,000 in damages for defamation. The court said that there was some harm suffered by the father-in-law, but that it was too trivial, and therefore dismissed the claim.
Lessons from the Dennis Denuto case
Take a read of the case and see what you think.
I can’t help but feel that this is a matter where emotions got the better of everyone, and it got to the point where no one was thinking rationally. It’s horrible to think that the real losers in these types of situations are the children who have to deal with openly hostile parents.
I also think the plaintiff’s actions in bringing these proceedings shows incredibly poor form. While defamation laws apply to all publications, large and small, actually going through with litigation based on petty insults like this is an appalling waste of the court’s resources. It also reeks of a lawyer using a system they know best to push someone around.
In a turn of events that some commentary has called “ironic”, but which I would say is just plain obvious, these proceedings are now on public record and have been reported widely in the press (if you don’t believe me, google Dennis Denuto defamation case, or some thing along those lines). Therefore, instead of getting his $250,000 in damages, the only thing the father-in-law succeeded in doing was publicising the case around Australia.
Irrelevant, vexatious, stupid or pointless
I’ll leave you with paragraphs  and , where Moynihan DCJ is considering what the natural meaning of Dennis Denuto is. Moynihan DCJ begins by explaining what the plaintiff thinks:
 The plaintiff contends the words used convey a defamatory meaning because the natural and ordinary meaning of the words ‘Dennis Denuto’ is a lawyer who was:
“(a) Unprofessional in the exercise of his said profession;
(b) Inexperienced in the exercise of his said profession;
(c) Unethical in the exercise of his said profession;
(d) Without, or without many or sufficient, clients in the exercise of his profession;
(e) Unable or incapable of discharging, properly, his role as a solicitor;
(f) Unable or incapable of discharging, properly, his role as a solicitor in large or complex litigation;
(g) Incompetent, including in the exercise of his said profession;
(h) Foolish, including in the exercise of his said profession; and
(i) The proper subject of ridicule, humour and/or mirth, including in the exercise of his said profession.”
 In addition, the plaintiff claims the term ‘Dennis Denuto’ used in the email of 31 January 2012 meant that “the plaintiff was a solicitor given to corresponding in an irrelevant, vexatious, stupid or pointless manner”.
If you read the case, I’m sure a few of these sound familiar.