Sex, videotapes and damages

The “IP issue” arose amid a number of claims arising from the breakdown of a defacto relationship.

Ms Giller came from Russia in 1990 and shortly after commenced living with Mr Procopets. Together, they had twins, but the relationship was very rocky to say the least.  Neave JA explained the circumstances giving rise to this part of Ms Giller’s claim:

358 … Ms Giller obtained an interim intervention order against Mr Procopets on 12 November 1996. As is often the case where a relationship involves violence,[336] Ms Giller continued to see Mr Procopets after the interim intervention order was granted. Ms Giller’s claim for damages for breach of confidence, breach of privacy and intentionally causing mental harm arose out of the events which followed the granting of this intervention order. The relevant factual findings made by his Honour are summarised below.[337]

359 The couple had intercourse on 19 November 1996 and on a number of other occasions between then and 1 December 1996. Mr Procopets filmed their sexual activities on a hidden video camera. Until 25 November, Ms Giller was unaware of the filming. Thereafter she became aware of the filming and acquiesced in it.

360 Shortly after 1 December 1996, relations between Ms Giller and Mr Procopets deteriorated, to the point where Mr Procopets began threatening to show videos of their sexual activities to Ms Giller’s friends and family.

Mr Procopets also rang Ms Giller’s employer and said that he had a video showing her abusing her position to obtain sexual favours. Mr Procopets also showed the videotape to his subsequent girlfriend for the purposes of degrading Ms Giller.

The trial judge found that:

I am satisfied that the plaintiff has established that the relationship was a confidential one, that she did not authorise him to distribute the video or show it, that his unauthorised distribution was a breach of that confidence and she would be entitled to relief for that breach of confidence.

I also find in respect of the threats to show, the distribution and the showing of the tape in December 1996, that the defendant intended to cause the plaintiff mental harm and that in distributing the video the plaintiff was distressed, annoyed and embarrassed.

His Honour explained why the videotapes were subject to an equitable obligation of confidence:

In my view persons indulging in a sexual activity in the privacy of their own home create a confidential relationship during such activity. In my view it is difficult to think of anything more intimate than consensual sexual activities between two parties in the privacy of their home. It involves a relationship of mutual trust and confidence which is to be shared between the persons but is not to be divulged to others without the consent of both parties.

(Salacious) shades of (Prince) Albert v Strange.

His Honour however refused damages in the equitable jurisdiction because Ms Giller did not seek an injunction and, further, equitable damages (my terminology used impermissibly loosely for the monetary remedy available under Lord Cairn’s Act) were not available for mental harm falling short of psychological or psychiatric injury.

The Victorian Court of Appeal unanimously held that damages (or perhaps equitable compensation for the purists amongst you), including aggravated damages, were available. If damages had been available, the trial judge would have awarded $5,000 + $3,000 by way of aggravated compensatory damages.  Neave JA, with whom Maxwell P agreed, awarded $50,000 included $10,000 by way of aggravated damages.  Ashley JA would have awarded $27,500 (including $7,500 by way of aggravated damages).

One might think that the availability of such damages for defamation and copyright infringement (e.g. Milpurrurru v Indofurn) admittedly, respectively, legal and statutory wrongs should mean the Court’s conclusion should not ultimately be controversial.

Nonetheless, while it is clearly very, very carefully considered – running to over 500 paragraphs (dealing with several other claims as well) – Mr Procopets represented himself.  

In addition, as the Court acknowledged, no Australian court has gone this far before.  

The Court also took into account House of Lords and Court of Appeal decisions, recognising that the most directly relevant also involved the application of the European Convention on Human Rights and appear to have assumed the availability of the remedy in these circumstances.  Also, the decision bears on territory in which the learned authors of Meagher, Gummow and Lehane have expressed vigorous views, although perhaps more about whether it is ‘damages’ under Lord Cairn’s Act or equitable compensation in the inherent jurisdiction that is being invoked.

Neave JA explained that, if it ever were the case that the Victorian enactment of Lord Cairn’s Act required an injunction to be sought, that had been conclusively changed by the wording adopted in s 38 of the Supreme Court Act 1986.

As to damages for mental distress and embarrasment, her Honour considered:

422 In Smith Kline & French v Secretary, Department of Community Services and Health, Gummow J said the conferring of equitable jurisdiction on a court:

… brings with it, in a case such as the present, the inherent jurisdiction to grant relief by way of monetary compensation for breach of an equitable obligation, whether of trust or confidence.[407]

423 Equitable remedies such as injunctions are available to prevent publication of confidential material because of its private nature.[408] It is unnecessary in such applications to show that, if unrestrained, the breach of confidence will cause financial loss or psychiatric injury. By parity of reasoning there should be no barrier to the making of an order for equitable compensation to compensate a claimant for the embarrassment or distress she has suffered as the result of a breach of an equitable duty of confidence which has already occurred. As Morland J said in Cornelius v De Taranto:

…[I]t would be a hollow protection of [the right to protection of confidential information] if in a particular case in breach of confidence without consent details of the confider’s private and family life were disclosed by the confidant to others and the only remedy that the law of England allowed was nominal damages. In this case an injunction or order for delivery up of all copies of the medico-legal report against the defendant will be of little use to the claimant. The damage has been done. … In cases of commercial or business breach of confidence the powers of the court are not barren. Such remedies as injunction, delivery-up, account of profits and damages may be available… similarly in the case of personal confidences exploited for profit or peddled to the media. … In the present case in my judgment recovery of damages for mental distress caused by breach of confidence, when no other substantial remedy is available, would not be inimical to considerations of policy but indeed to refuse such recovery would illustrate that something was wrong with the law.[409]

424 I respectfully agree with that view.[410] An inability to order equitable compensation to a claimant who has suffered distress would mean that a claimant whose confidence was breached before an injunction could be obtained would have no effective remedy.

and, if damages were to be assessed under Lord Cairn’s Act:

428 Damages under Lord Cairns’ Act are sui generis, and can be awarded in some circumstances where common law damages are not recoverable.[416] In my view, such damages should be available where the essence of the plaintiff’s case is that he or she has been embarrassed by the exposure of private information, rather than that the defendant has profited from the wrongful use of that information. In Talbot v General Television Corporation Pty Ltd,[417] Young CJ treated damages under Lord Cairns’ Act as compensating the plaintiff for what he or she had lost.[418] It is consistent with that approach to compensate Ms Giller for the mental distress suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions.

Her Honour considered that awarding damages was also consistent with the injunctions by Gleeson CJ, Hayne and Gummow JJ in ABC v Lenah Meats on the need for breach of confidence to develop appropriately to protect privacy interests.

Ashley JA considered that it was unnecessary to consider Ms Giller’s claim to a generalised tort of invasion of privacy because breach of confidence was available and adequate to address the situation.

Giller v Procopets [2008] VSCA 236.

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