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Robbins v. Pacific Newspaper Group Inc.

Awaken The Litigation Within:
Tony Robbins Wins a Mixed Victory in the British Columbia Supreme Court

Originally published in the MLRC MediaLawLetter December 2005.
Republished with permission.

By David Crerar
Colorful cases are not rare in defamation but the recent decision of Robbins v. Pacific Newspaper Group Inc. 2005 BCSC 1634 provides an extraordinary read. The trial judge, the Honorable Mr. Justice Williamson, opens his reasons by quoting the initial email tip leading to the stories: “you couldn’t make this stuff up…”; the trial judge noted that these words were prescient. Robbins also reiterates some important law, as well as useful strategic considerations.

The plaintiff was the prominent motivational speaker Tony Robbins, described in one of the impugned television broadcasts as “he of the ubiquitous infomercials, perfectly coiffed hair and toothy smile.” The articles in question alleged that Mr. Robbins “stole” the wife of British Columbia businessman John Lynch, the president of a company called “Instant Bedrooms”. In 1999 the former Mrs. Lynch and present Mrs. Robbins traveled to Hawaii to attend one of Mr. Robbins’s motivational seminars. In 2000 she separated from Mr. Lynch. She has since married Tony Robbins and has doubly changed her name from “Bonnie-Pearl Lynch” to “Sage Robbins”. The Lynches lived in the bedroom and farming community of Langley, British Columbia, leading to local British Columbia media interest in the story, and the assumption of jurisdiction over the dispute by the British Columbia Supreme Court, the superior trial court in this province.

The main publication sued upon was a front-page article published by the Vancouver Sun on June 7, 2001. The article was republished in slightly different versions in two other newspapers in the same media group. Two days later, the Sun published a sardonic article contrasting Mr. Robbins’s actions with passages from Mr. Robbins’s books extolling the importance of relationships. The article also formed the basis of an exclusive television broadcast by a related television station. Given this broad republication, it is not surprising that the list of defendants was lengthy: it included not only the reporter and editor, but also the two television anchor persons and Lord Conrad Black, the chairman and publisher of one the newspapers. The defendants also included the ex-husband John Lynch, and Lynch’s non-lawyer yet self-proclaimed legal advisor, Gary Sir John Carlsen III, both of whom were the initial sources of the story.
Allegedly Defamatory Statements

By trial, the parties agreed that the publications contained three inferential meanings, although they disagreed as to whether the meaning were defamatory:
(a) Tony Robbins stole John Lynch’s wife;
(b) John Lynch attempted suicide because Robbins stole his wife;
(c) Tony Robbins is a hypocrite.

With respect to the first and main allegation that Robbins “stole” Lynch’s wife, Justice Williamson found that “this inferential meaning is so devoid of reason that I fail to see how it could possibly be defamatory.” The Court questioned how in modern society one could be accused of “stealing” another’s spouse: this claimed assertion ignores the accepted fact of marital breakdown and assumes a lack of will or consent on the part of the “stolen” spouse. This conclusion in turn led to the finding that the second statement was not defamatory: if it is not defamatory to say that a person stole another person’s spouse, it cannot be defamatory to allege that the aggrieved spouse attempted suicide as a result. The Court concluded that the alleged suicide attempt “says more about [Lynch] than it does Robbins,” and dismissed this aspect of the claim.

The Court found only the third inferential meaning, that Robbins was a hypocrite, to have been defamatory. The media defendants sought to justify the allegation, claiming that Robbins’s divorce and subsequent remarriage showed that he did not practice what he preached about spousal relationships. The Court dismissed this defense, finding no inconsistency between Robbins’s writings and actions. The Court found that Mr. Robbins’s “motivational message”, while trite, did not evidence hypocrisy: one should not stay in a troubled relationship at all costs, and if “one finds oneself in an unhappy situation, one should reach inside and find the inner strength to do something about it”.
The Court also found in Mr. Robbins’s favor on an inferential meaning the meaning of which was disputed by the media defendants. The article had contained the line “Robbins’s wife Becky even alleged, when seeking a restraining order during their divorce, that her husband paid $18,000 U.S. for his new girlfriend’s breast implants.” The Court found that to suggest that a man’s conduct is such that his wife needs the protection of a court restraining order to be defamatory.
In response to the entire claim, the media defendants pointed to two quotations in the impugned article, from Robbins’s spokesman, and from Sage Robbins’s mother, that they claimed balanced the article. The quotations, it was argued, serves as an antidote to the overall bane of the defamatory content. The Court rejected this contention: the articles omitted the critical fact that the Lynches had separated several times before Mr. Robbins came on the scene, and thus created the misleading impression that Mr. Robbins disrupted an otherwise stable marriage.


Having concluding that some aspects of the publications had defamed Mr. Robbins, the Court applied the decision of Leenen v. Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (2000), 48 O.R. (3d) 656 (S.C.J.), aff’d (2001) 54 O.R. (3d) 612 (C.A.) a much-cited case providing a useful judicial checklist of considerations for assessing damages in Canadian defamation claims. This article will highlight some of the more salient considerations. The allegations were serious. The publications were widely distributed. Although some efforts were made towards balance, the critical omission of past Lynch marital troubles skewed the article. The media defendants promoted the celebrity-gossip aspects of the story to increase sales. The defendants failed to heed warnings, including an advance letter issued by Robbins’s attorney, that the sources Carlsen and Lynch were unreliable and biased.

A major factor in assessing damages is the willingness or refusal of the defendant to retract or print an apology. In the present case, the media defendants did not issue an apology despite a demand for same. The Court found that this was not an aggravating factor. The Court noted that Robbins’s counsel had forwarded to the Vancouver Sun not a conventional apology and retraction, but a proposed news story. The draft story set out the alleged facts from Robbins’s perspective and raised new allegations against Carlsen and Lynch. In an important finding, the Court accepted that a newspaper’s lawyer would not and could not agree or guarantee to publish such a document.

Thus the Court found that the Vancouver Sun had fallen afoul of several of the Leenen factors set out above. But ultimately, these factors paled in importance to the fact that Tony Robbins himself did not testify at the trial. The Court cited respected authority, including a text authored by Mr. Robbins’s British Columbia attorney, that an award of substantial damages is not justified where the plaintiff does not himself testify at trial: “the purpose of an action for defamation is the protection of one’s reputation. While damages are presumed, the plaintiff’s failure to take the witness stand and to testify about his feelings and the impact of the defamation upon his reputation leaves the Court somewhat in the dark about these matters.”

There was other evidence that the plaintiff only suffered slight actual damages. The Court noted among the evidence a videotape of Mr. Robbins announcing at one of his seminars that he was planning to marry. The event occurred after the Vancouver Sun publication. Rather than opprobrium, the seminar attendees reacted with encouragement and adulation: “the participants hardly behaved as if Robbins’s reputation had been lowered in their estimation because of his relationship with the former Mrs. Lynch.”

The Court awarded damages in the amount of CAN$20,000 (approximately US$17,265) jointly and severally against all of the media defendants. As Gary Sir John Carlsen III had issued an apology, the Court order nominal damages against him: CAN$500 (approximately US$432).

The Court also granted the plaintiff’s application for a permanent injunction requiring the media defendants to remove the impugned articles from an internet-based news article database.
At the end of the day, Robbins was thus successful, but it was something of an economically pyrrhic victory. The action lasted four years and the trial lasted five weeks. The plaintiff’s cost to bring the action to its CAN$20,500 conclusion was probably in the range of half-a-million dollars. But the plaintiff was not likely perturbed: as was noted in the judgment, there was “no challenge to the statement in Lee’s story that Robbins is reportedly worth $400 million.”

Roger McConchie and R. Alan McConchie of McConchie Law Corporation, West Vancouver, represented the plaintiff Anthony Robbins. Robert S. Anderson, Scott A. Dawson, and Judy Jansen of Farris, Vancouver, represented all of the defendants except for John Lynch, who was represented by David F. Sutherland and Travis W. Brine of David F. Sutherland & Associates, Vancouver, and the defendant, Gary Sir John Carlsen III who appeared on his own behalf.

David Crerar practices corporate and commercial litigation in the Vancouver office of the national law firm of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. In addition to media and defamation law, Mr. Crerar practices and has published in the areas of banking litigation, injunctions, class proceedings, and protection of trade secrets.