Defamed, but Jerry Bennette faces big legal bill
A BYRON Bay-based property developer defamed by NSW Greens MP Ian Cohen was an 'unyielding' complainer and litigant, a NSW Supreme Court judge said yesterday. Justice Ian Harrison awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs in favour of Mr Cohen and against the developer, Jerry Bennette despite the proven defamation. Mr Bennette's years of bitter and sometimes violent feuding with fellow residents of Byron Bay were laid bare during the case, whose history spanned two decades, Justice Harrison said. The developer's complaints and the filing of a defamation action stemmed from comments made by Mr Cohen in 2001 during public meetings at a local hall. In 2004, a jury concludx ed Mr Cohen's speech conveyed the defamatory meaning Mr Bennette was a thug and a bully who manipulated the system by bringing court proceedings to stifle opposition to his developments. But Justice Harrison, in deciding whether Mr Cohen had any legal defences to the action and/or the amount of damages Mr Bennette should receive, concluded the allegedly defamatory statements by Mr Cohen were acceptable as expressions of opinion. "For my part, the characteristic that can be said most often and most accurately to describe (Mr Bennette) is his apparently unyielding propensity to complain," Justice Harrison said in his 63-page ruling. "The plaintiff is almost unique in my experience as someone who would so often resort, or threaten to resort, to the criminal law." Mr Bennette said Mr Cohen defamed him in comments he made to two public meetings at the Suffolk Park Progress Hall, near Byron Bay, staged to raise money for an environmental activist being sued by Mr Bennette. He wrote to organisers warning them not to stage the first meeting, and he then hired a private investigator to secretly tape both of them before he launched fresh legal action against Mr Cohen. Awarding costs against Mr Bennette, Justice Harrison said the comments were protected under qualified privilege. He also said: "In my opinion, the ordinary reasonable listener would have understood these imputations as expressions of opinion. "I do not, however, consider that even the most outlandish, aggressive, threatening, selfish, offensive or just simply unpleasant behaviour, which appears to be (Mr Bennette's) stock in trade ... combine to demonstrate that he is a thug or a bully."