Supreme Court judge Kenneth Martin used the long-running case to warn that people were wrong to assume the laws of defamation did not apply to the Internet.
Justice Martin said Terry John McLernon appeared to see himself as “some sort of self-appointed Internet crusader” who had the right to expose the men’s alleged misdeeds while dispensing “liberal amounts of poison”.
Two of the businessmen, Anton Billis ― head of $350 million gold miner Tribune Resources ―and one-time payday lender Oliver Douglas, were each awarded $250,000 in damages, believed to be the biggest defamation awards made in WA.
A third, former company director Paul Matich, was awarded $200,000.
While acknowledging that Mr McLernon, a two-time bankrupt, was unlikely to have the means to pay the men, Justice Martin said the damages needed to be at the high end of the scale to reflect the significant reputational damage and personal distress they had suffered.
He also suggested his orders, which include a permanent ban on Mr McLernon publishing any further claims against the men, should be a warning to those who still mistakenly believed that defamation laws did not apply to the Internet.
“There is a lingering misapprehension that anything at all can be posted concerning another person over the Internet, no matter how defamatory or scandalous, and that the posted material will enjoy a complete immunity,” Justice Martin said.
Mr Douglas, Mr Billis and Mr Matich sued Mr McLernon in linked actions in 2012 over material posted on three websites he operated, mclernonfile.com, blackdogsbarking.com and herdontheterrace.com.
Amongst other postings, the websites claimed or implied the men were members of an organised criminal gang, the Fat Wallet Mob, had threatened government officers, stolen company funds for their own use and knowingly associated with a corrupt police officer.