Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.

The Hook: Political news, freshly caught

Furlong vs. Robinson battle gets to court, but trial still up in the air

Neither John Furlong nor Laura Robinson were in British Columbia Supreme Court on Dec. 9, but the defamation dispute between the former Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics boss and the freelance journalist finally entered a courtroom.

Instead of a trial on Furlong's Nov. 27, 2012 defamation lawsuit, Robinson's lawyer asked a judge to order Furlong pay $100,000 to the court registry as security for her legal bills, in case he eventually loses the case.

Furlong's lawyer John Hunter opposed the application, which was made under a rarely used section of the Libel and Slander Act, on grounds that Furlong needs the money. Hunter said Furlong's public speaking business collapsed after the Georgia Straight published Robinson's Sept. 27, 2012 "John Furlong biography omits secret past in Burns Lake" story.

The story alleged Irish-born Furlong physically abused aboriginal children when he taught physical education at a Burns Lake, B.C. Catholic elementary school in 1969 and 1970. Furlong has denied the allegations, which are based on affidavits Robinson collected from eight people. None of the allegations has been proven in court.

Hunter denied Furlong has financial troubles, but Robinson's lawyer, Jeremy Shragge, said he was unable to find any evidence Furlong had assets in B.C. Furlong's list of documents disclosed to Robinson and his Dec. 5 affidavit omitted information about his income from chairing Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Rocky Mountaineer and Own the Podium and directorships with Canadian Tire and Whistler Blackcomb Holdings.

Shragge argued before Justice G.C. Weatherill that Furlong's lawsuit against Robinson is frivolous.

"We've reserved a trial date and we've invited Mr. Furlong to file a notice of trial, he's chosen not to," Shragge said in court. "We're looking at a 19 to 20 day jury trial, the earliest date we could get was the end of January (2015) and we're going to lose that date later this week unless Mr. Furlong sets down a trial and he's chosen not to thus far."

The more important point, Shragge argued, was that Furlong discontinued his action in late October against the Georgia Straight.

"Mr. Furlong provides no coherent explanation as to why he would discontinue against the publisher of the article that he says has caused him so much damage and so much difficulty and so much pain," Shragge told the court. "He's going after Ms. Robinson and her alone. One would think that a rational plaintiff in circumstances such as these would want to go after the source of the alleged defamation. Anyone in the world with an Internet connection can go online right now and read that article."

Furlong's actions, he said, are "more consistent with a plaintiff who is embittered and angry at a reporter for writing certain things about him in an article."

Hunter agreed Furlong is angry, but said he is justified. He said the Georgia Straight published the one story, but Robinson later contacted Furlong's employers to find out if they continued to support him and she repeated the allegations.

"He's entitled to focus his attention on the person that he regards as the most egregious in her own right, the person who caused the problem and continues to cause the problem," Hunter told the court.

"How can it not be defamatory against a man who has the Order of Canada, Order of B.C. and all of the rest of the accolades Mr. Furlong has received in his very distinguished career? How can that not be defamatory?

"Are they going to be able to prove this all happened? Are they going to be able to, even if it didn't happen, be able to evade liability on the basis of responsible journalism?"

Hunter offered the court no information on when or if Furlong would schedule a trial. He did not object to Shragge's statements on that topic. He also declined to answer a reporter's questions outside the courtroom about the lack of trial scheduling.

To support the application, Shragge cited a 2006 court order for Gurmej Singh Gill to pay $20,000 to the registry as security for costs in his defamation lawsuit against the Pacific Newspaper Group and Vancouver Sun investigative reporter Kim Bolan over a 2001 story.

Hunter said case law dictates that a judge's discretion to order a security payment from a plaintiff should be exercised cautiously and sparingly, only when the plaintiff is needy, has a weak claim, a history of failing to pay court costs or disrespect of court orders.

"We don't have that kind of case here at all," Hunter said.

Shragge also filed an objection to Furlong's Dec. 5 affidavit, branding it inadmissible because it lacked names, dates and facts and did not include supporting documents. He said it violated court rules because it instead contained opinion, irrelevant statements, personal attacks and adjectives. "Argument, dressed up as facts and in some cases there is hearsay and even double hearsay."

Weatherill later warned Hunter that "some of it, at least, will be ruled inadmissible."

Hunter conceded that Furlong's words were "strongly expressed," but repeated the claim from Furlong's original lawsuit, that Robinson acted with malice.

"It surely cannot be said the defendant has shown that she has published in good faith," Hunter said. "That will be one of the central issues at trial."

Weatherill said he would deliver a verbal judgment on the $100,000 application and the admissibility of the affidavit on Dec. 10.

The application almost wasn't heard on Dec. 9. Justice Joel Groves was the original judge, but when the case was called in courtroom 31 he said he could not hear the matter because of an unspecified "problem" he had with the case.

Shragge and Hunter huddled with a scheduling clerk to find another judge and courtroom sometime this week before another clerk learned that Weatherill became available in courtroom 41 because of a trial adjournment.

When it got underway almost an hour later, Weatherill told Shragge and Hunter that he was a member of the Arbutus Club and knew Furlong when he was the Shaughnessy club's general manager, prior to becoming VANOC's chief executive in 2004.

"We exchanged pleasantries from time to time in the hallway, that is the extent of my acquaintance," Weatherill said. Hunter made no comment.

"The question for me is whether your lordship feels that he is able to render a decision on the merits and if your lordship feels that is the end of the discussion for us," Shragge said.

Weatherill responded: "That is my view. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Vancouver journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee. Due to the nature of this story, comments are closed.

Find more in: