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'You don't get to hide': Alberta court finds California woman guilty of defamation against Canadian DJ


In an unusual case of defamation, an Alberta judge recently awarded a Quebec DJ $1.5 million in damages stemming from a social media account run by a California woman he had never met.

Frédérik Durand, an electronic dance music (EDM) producer and DJ known as Snails, says his life and reputation were destroyed by an Instagram account called @evidenceagainstsnails.

Run by Michaela Higgins, an EDM performer and publicist in the U.S., the now-deactivated account reposted allegations of sexual misconduct and physical abuse by Durand.

"It destroyed a big part of my career, of my personal life," Durand said in a French interview with CTV News Montreal. "It impacted my mental health. It affected a lot of things, my family, my girlfriend. There wasn't a single area that it didn't affect."

Durand has maintained that all of the accusations posted on Higgins' account were false and in 2021 he filed a defamation suit against Higgins in Alberta.

It's rare that a case is litigated in a province where neither the plaintiff nor defendant lives.

However, a judge at the Alberta Court of King's Bench said the province had jurisdiction because the Instagram account – and the posts shared on it – could be directly linked to Alberta and two of Durand's shows being cancelled in the province in 2021.

"Ms. Higgins intended for her publications to lower Mr. Durand’s reputation in the minds of her readers and his musical community generally, and to do so in Alberta specifically," Justice Nicholas Devlin reasoned. "It is eminently reasonable for her to face an action where her words had their intended effect."

'A common misconception'

The lawsuit was settled with a summary judgment, meaning the case was decided by the judge rather than through a trial.

The lawsuit was by a motion for summary judgment, meaning the case was decided on affidavit evidence in a summary manner because there was no genuine issue that required a trial with oral testimony from witnesses.

While Durand provided evidence to disprove or cast doubt on the legitimacy of the claims published on the Instagram account, Higgins said she could not afford a lawyer to fight the case in Canada and disputed that the Alberta court had jurisdiction over the case since she lives in California.

According to the judge, Higgins did not provide evidence that she couldn't afford a lawyer and she chose not to represent herself virtually, despite the option being available to her.

In her single virtual appearance, Higgins argued against the jurisdiction of the case and claimed she was only motivated by the desire to protect women, according to court documents.

She did not offer any evidence, deny that she ran the account, or argue the statements she posted were true.

Devlin found Higgins failed to verify the accusations she shared on Instagram, reposted second- and third-hand accounts of events, and ignored contradictory evidence when reposting.

Without evidence that the accusations were true, privileged, responsible communications on a matter of public interest, the judge concluded the purpose and intention of the Instagram account was to portray Durand as a "creep and a criminal" and to "cancel" his career.

Higgin's desire to "protect vulnerable women,'' Devlin said, did not justify reposting defamatory comments.

"There appears to exist a common misconception amongst social media users that reposting defamatory content generated by others is a protected activity, under the doctrine of fair comment or otherwise. This misunderstanding should be corrected as firmly as possible," Devlin said.

Devlin awarded $1 million for the impact Higgins' actions had on Durand's career and lost earnings. Another $500,000 was awarded for how Durand was personally affected.

Canadian legal expert Ari Goldkind said the ruling was one of the "most wonderful decisions" he's seen regarding Canadian defamation law.

"For a judge to say, 'No, just because you're in the United States, you don't get to hide from our law," Goldkind added. "It's really a brilliantly worded decision and I think will be used by others in similar situations."

The ruling sends a strong message to social media users, Goldkind said, that they are responsible for the content they share on social media, even that which was created by other users.

Higgins said she doesn't believe she should be held to Canadian law and she isn't worried about having to pay the $1.5 million in damages.

"In order for him to enforce this judgment, he would have to file a new lawsuit in California, then I will have an opportunity to defend it," Higgins told CTV News Edmonton.

'I don't have any doubt'

In his judgment, Devlin ordered that Higgins is permanently prohibited from posting any statements online – original or existing – that suggest sexual misconduct or physical assault by Durand.

Higgins said she has no plans to reopen the account, but she doesn't regret her actions and maintains that she believes the accusations she reposted.

After the ruling, she posted a story to her personal Instagram account featuring several posts from the deactivated page.

"I don't have any doubt that what I did was 100 per cent just for the purpose of protecting vulnerable women and girls," Higgins said.

She accuses Durand of using his money to silence online critics and said she will file for bankruptcy if he chooses to pursue damages in the U.S.

Ellery Lew, Durand's lawyer, said the years-long ordeal has been difficult on his client and they were both thrilled to have the judge rule in Durand's favour.

"I think the biggest lesson is to be very careful about what you read on social media and repost," Lew said. "Not all of it is true.

"Some of it is inaccurate. It's based on third-party information, or worse, some of it could be malicious and just deliberately false. And unless you know, don't repost."

Lew said he's unsure if Durand will fight for the $1.5 million he is owed.

"It was a very traumatizing experience and a very intense one," Durand said. "I spent two years showing evidence, living through this nightmare … I will take time for myself and absorb this news."

Durand's interview with CTV Montreal was translated by CTV News Montreal and through Google Translate.

With files from CTV News Montreal and CTV News Edmonton's Nicole Lampa Top Stories

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