How not to sue Dragons’ Den

Every time I see the Dragons belittle a sweating contestant from their raised TV studio platform that reminds of Olympus I catch a breath. It’s not Jerry Springer but what if one of the scorned pitchers loses it and throws his heavy business idea right at a Dragon’s head? Thankfully, I’ve never seen such a sight, but at least one unlucky show participant did sue the CBC for defamation after a particularly nasty broadcast. His litigation imploded at the summary judgment motion teaching us something about both the defamation law and the inner workings the famous TV show.

In his judgment, Justice Lofchik summarized well what happened between the plaintiff, Mr. Turmel, and the CBC. A Dragons’ Den producer recruited Turmel for his public speaking skills. No business idea was on the table at that time. Turmel signed a bulletproof consent and release. Then his unsuccessful pitch for “a local currency system for Brantford, Ontario” was taped on May 31, 2009. Dragons showed no mercy. Nine months later, the CBC broadcast Mr. Turmel’s pitch in a one-minute version. A week later, he sued the CBC for defamation.

The CBC brought a summary judgment motion. The rule for summary judgment is that “there is no genuine issue requiring a trial with respect to a claim or defence.” Summary judgment is serious because it deprives one or more parties to a lawsuit of a trial. But if there is no doubt about the outcome of a trial, the court should grant summary judgment to save everyone’s time and money.

The first issue at the motion was Mr. Turmel’s failure to notify the CBC of the alleged defamation in writing within six weeks of seeing the broadcast. Ontario’s Libel and Slander Act bars any claim for “libel in a newspaper or in a broadcast” if the plaintiff didn’t do that. Even serving a statement of claim a week after the broadcast didn’t help Mr. Turmel. The purpose of the written notice is to give the alleged defamer a chance to apologize and correct the record. The courts have held that you cannot expect a defendant to have such an opportunity once the litigation took off. If Mr. Turmel’s claim was for defamation, his ignorance of the (rather arcane) law killed his case.

The second issue was Mr. Turmel’s argument that his case was not only for defamation but also for breach of contract. If he was right, the Libel and Slander Act didn’t bar at least some of his claim. He was wrong. The judge held that even though “one might also glean the suggestion of a claim for breach of contract,” Mr. Turmel signed a rock-solid consent and release that was the whole contract between him and the CBC. Mr. Turmel wasn’t a vulnerable party deserving special treatment, and he could have consulted a lawyer when he signed the deal. The agreement was that the CBC could pretty much show or not show anything taped in exchange for giving him a chance to pitch to the Dragons.

So a procedural misstep in the defamation claim and a failure to plead another real cause of action caused Mr. Turmel to lose this summary judgment motion. Consulting a defamation lawyer could certainly have helped him, but who knows, maybe Mr. Turmel will launch a second salvo in his war with the CBC by pleading another cause of action. But which one?

Pulat Yunusov is a Toronto litigation lawyer.

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