Defamation lawsuit over shoplifting poster

A Sydney woman has lost a defamation case against a business owner who posted a photo of her with the word “Thief!” in a Mount Druitt discount store.

The poster appeared at the counter of One Stop Bargains, a two-dollar shop on Mount Druitt Road, in July 2016.

The word “Thief!” was written in capital letters above and below the woman’s photograph, which was taken from CCTV footage of her in the make-up section of the store.

The woman denied stealing from the shop and demanded that the poster be taken down before launching defamation proceedings in the NSW District Court.

Judge Judith Gibson said CCTV footage from inside the shop was incomplete but showed the woman “looking at items in the make-up section” and “picking up small cylindrical items which look like lipsticks”.

The woman placed one hand in her pocket while giving a “very long and furtive stare” in the direction of the shop assistant behind the counter.

“The plaintiff is seen putting her hand into her pocket in a suspicious manner throughout the CCTV footage,” Judge Gibson said.

The woman told the court she lived “three to five minutes’ walk” from the shop and went there every day. On the day in question – July 1, 2016 – she attended the shop with two of her children.

She said she bought two $1.50 lollipops, two 50¢ ice-blocks and a $4 lipstick. But the 21-year-old shop assistant, whose family own the business, gave evidence she did not buy any lipsticks although she stood at the lipstick counter for some time.

The woman denied in the witness box that she placed anything in her pocket during the shopping expedition. Asked the same question in writing before the trial, she answered “I can’t recall.”

The case faced a number of legal hurdles, including that the man who was sued for defamation was not the owner of the shop, but the father of the owner. The father said he was not responsible for the poster.

Judge Gibson also found the poster was not, as the woman had claimed, placed in the shop window, although it was placed at the front of the shop, “namely at the counter directly in front of the glass windows”.

“As no action has been brought in relation to publication of the poster elsewhere in the shop, this claim fails,” Judge Gibson said.

Judge Gibson nevertheless considered whether the defences pleaded by the defendant, including truth, would have been successful.

A criminal prosecution against the woman for theft did not proceed and the charge was withdrawn on the day of the hearing.

But Judge Gibson said she was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that “the evidence displayed that the plaintiff did in fact steal items from the shop”. This was a “complete defence” to the poster.

Slater & Gordon principal lawyer Andy Munro, who acted for the defendant, said the shop owner had been “quite careful before preparing the poster”, including checking store inventory and the CCTV footage.

“While an individual’s rights to privacy must always be balanced against potential intrusion by the use of CCTV, the use of cameras in stores is a kind of deterrence, and this decision recognises that business owners have a right to protect themselves from legitimate shoplifters,” Mr Munro said.