August 11, 2017 7:08 pm
Updated: August 11, 2017 7:10 pm

Defence lawyer wins defamation lawsuit against Edmonton Police Association

Edmonton-based lawyer Tom Engel has filed a court challenge to prevent an early provincial election on March 26, 2015..

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 A judge has ruled an article on the Edmonton Police Association website defamed Edmonton lawyer Tom Engel and ordered the group to pay him $50,000 damages.The article, posted on the EPA website in September 2008, was written by former EPA member and director Bill Newton, who is also named in the lawsuit.

The EPA is the union that represents Edmonton Police Service officers. Their membership is automatic. The website, and articles on it, is meant to be a key source of information for members.

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According to Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Avril Inglis’s decision, a colleague found the article online after Googling Engel’s name, and alerted him. Engel contacted the vice president of the EPA to say he was angry and felt the article was defamatory, contained false information and damaged his reputation as a lawyer.

Engel has been a lawyer for more than 30 years, is a long-time member of the Edmonton Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, and his practice regularly involves policing issues, including complaints made to the Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB) and appearances at the board.

Newton is a retired, 30-year city police member who served as director of the EPA in 2007 and was part of the web and legal affairs committees. He told the judge he had been tasked by the EPA to help police officers who were the subjects of LERB complaints. While he was helping members through the process, he collected data on LERB cases and found there was “an inordinate number of appeals” compared to other cities.

That was his motivation for the article, not in order to vilify Engel, according to Newton’s testimony at trial.

“He summarized his goal in writing and publishing the article as one to inform members of the slow process of LERB complaints and what the ultimate outcomes tended to be,” the decision said.

“He further implied it was a call to change the processes, particularly the timeliness of hearings and decisions.”

The article remained posted on the EPA website for weeks and wasn’t taken down until Nov. 7, 2008, after Engel’s lawyer sent a letter to the EPA demanding it be removed. No apology or retraction was issued by Newton or the EPA.

The defendants disagreed that the article was dishonest. They claimed the article was not about Engel and not defamatory.

However, on Wednesday, Inglis ruled in Engel’s favour.

“Even a non-lawyer would easily lower their opinion of Mr. Engel after reading the article,” Inglis wrote, adding that defamation carries additional weight for someone in the legal profession.

“I find the article in general to be defamatory in fact, opinion and tone.

“Further, the circumstances and source of publication increase the defamatory effects. Any ordinary, right-thinking member of society would objectively find that the following statements (and the article overall) impute that Mr. Engel (and potentially other counsel associated with him) is incompetent, unskilled and ineffective as a lawyer. To a lesser extent, the article also implies ulterior motives might be present in Mr. Engel’s (and potentially other counsel associated with him) practice.”

Engel was seeking $150,000 for general, aggravated and exemplary damages. Justice Inglis awarded him $50,000 for general damages.

“I agree that given Mr. Engel’s profession, the statements in the article are particularly injurious. The article explicitly refers to incompetence, frivolous and vexatious conduct which implicitly suggests dishonest motives and overall suggests professional impropriety. Combined, when considering the lengthy and public career of the plaintiff, are all damaging to his reputation as a lawyer, and to his position and standing in the community,” the decision reads.

“I find that Mr. Engel is entitled to damages reflective of the significant distress and damage as a result of the defamatory article.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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