6 MLJ 101
Perunding Alam Bina Sdn Bhd v Errol Oh & Ors
HIGH COURT (
JAMES FOONG J
Tort — Defamation — Imputation of unprofessionalism and negligence of architects — Objective test of reasonable man with ordinary intelligence and of general knowledge and experience in worldly affairs applied — Whether defence of justification can succeed — Whether dishonesty and malice proved — Whether public has legitimate right to comment — Whether comments were fair
The plaintiffs were the architects for plans to build a hospital. The plaintiffs claimed that they were defamed in two articles written and published by the defendants in the newspaper. The plaintiff averred that they were the persons referred to in the articles and, by their natural and ordinary meaning and/or by way of innuendo, it imputed that the plaintiffs were lackadaisical in their supervisory functions as consultant architects, had failed to give out proper instructions, were unethical, unprofessional, negligent, incompetent and were in breach of the architect’s professional code of conduct. As a result of the statements in the articles, the plaintiffs alleged that their credit and reputation were gravely injured and lowered in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally and had also suffered damages. The defendants admitted writing and publishing the articles but raised the defence of justification and fair comment. The issue before the court was whether the words complained of in the articles impute the plaintiffs of some quality which would be detrimental or adverse of such quality which was essential to successfully carry on their profession as architects.
Held, dismissing the claim:
(1) To decide on the issue of imputation, the objective test of the reasonable man with ordinary intelligence and of general knowledge and experience in worldly affairs would likely to understand the alleged defamatory words without being fettered with strict legal rules of construction but may include any implications or inferences must be used. In the present case, the first article focused on the unprofessionalism of the architects, ethics and breach of it, safety measures and negligence. These were obviously elements associated with unprofessional conduct. By the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used, an ordinary reasonable person reading the statements would have the impression that the plaintiffs were unprofessional and unethical in their conduct. These statements were therefore defamatory (see pp 106H–107H).
(2) With regard to the second article, except for the paragraph which directly refers to the plaintiffs, the entire alleged defamatory statements relates to the developer. It did not impute the plaintiffs at all. Reading the article as a whole, the court did not believe that an ordinary reasonable man could impute the alleged defamatory statement to the plaintiffs (see p 111A–D).
(3) Though the defence pleaded justification, and even with particulars to certain facts being true, there was no disclosure as to what these facts alleged to be true impute. This particular imputation on the facts alleged to be true was nowhere stated in the statement of defence. Going by the rules of pleadings, where a party’s case must be confined to the four walls of its pleadings, the court found that the defendants’ alleged meaning imputed from the facts disclosed as true could not be accepted. There was no justification asserted that it imputed that the plaintiffs were unprofessional and incompetent in their work. For this, the plea of justification must fail (see p 108B–G).
(4) The articles principally were comments or opinions made by the defendant. Further, the exposure of non-compliance of building plans was certainly a matter of public interest. So was the role of the architects. Not only an honourable and respected profession serving the community was involved, but also the safety factor of structures constructed or to be constructed in this country. On this, the defendant, as a matter of the public had a legitimate right to comment and in the light of the situation, his comments on the conduct and ethics of the plaintiffs were fair. There was no dishonesty and malice on the part of the defendants nor were these ever proved (see p 110C–E).