Nine and Nick Cater to pay Wagners $3.6m after losing 60 Minutes defamation case

Nine and journalist Nick Cater have been ordered to pay the Wagner brothers $3.6m in damages after a Queensland Supreme Court jury found they “gravely” defamed the wealthy family.

In 2015, a 60 Minutes episode suggested the Wagners caused the catastrophic Grantham floods, which killed 12 people and destroyed the town. The program implied that the disaster was caused by the Wagners’ failure to take steps to prevent a quarry wall on their property from collapsing, causing a wall of water to engulf the town.

The jury found that Cater, a journalist at The Australian who featured in the episode, had an “apparent vendetta” against the brothers, claiming the flood was “a man-made disaster that should have been avoided but wasn’t”.

The episode aired in 2015

Justice Applegarth said that Nine did not approach the Wagners with the allegations well in advance, and instead were “recklessly indifferent to the truth or falsity of the defamatory imputations”.

“Because the story’s focus was to be on the Wagners’ quarry and Mr Cater’s contention that the quarry caused the deaths of 12 people and other devastation, one might have expected a responsible media organisation with an interest in ascertaining and reporting the truth to seek a response from the Wagners to Mr Cater’s allegations, and to do so well in advance of the program,” Justice Applegarth said.

“This would enable the truth to be ascertained and any doubts surrounding the allegations which Nine intended to broadcast addressed and included in the program. This did not happen.”

Nine did not issue a retraction or apology. An apology was made by its lawyers in court, but this was “too little, too late”, according to the judge.

“It did not serve the function of an apology and was ineffective to mitigate the harm caused by the defendants’ defamation of the Wagners,” Justice Applegarth said.

Cater had an “apparent vendetta” against the family, the court said

Accordingly, due to Nine’s “extreme” carelessness and “unjustifiable” conduct, the court ruled that each of the brothers was entitled to damages of $600,000 from Nine, and $300,000 from Cater, influenced by his “miserable post-publication conduct towards the Wagners”. That means Nine must pay a total of $2.4m, and Cater a total of $1.2m, with each of the brothers receiving $900,000.

“[The harm against the Wagners] includes the distress of fearing what people around the nation were thinking about them, and the hurt and outrage at being the subject of reckless journalism and an apparent vendetta by Mr Cater,” Justice Applegarth said.

“Being falsely accused of having failed to take steps to prevent their quarry wall from collapsing, causing the deaths of 12 people and the destruction of a town, is an extraordinarily serious defamation.

The sums awarded are intended to convince members of the public, who saw the 60 Minutes program or heard about it on the grapevine, that the defamatory imputations conveyed by it and by Mr Cater’s statements on it are baseless. They seek to compensate the Wagners, to the extent that money can, for the great harm that these indefensible defamations have caused.”

Nine said it will review the judgment and consider its position.

Last year, Alan Jones, 2GB and 4BC (radio stations now wholly owned by Nine) were ordered to pay $3.4m in damages to the Wagner family, over a series of radio broadcasts between 2014 and 2015. In that instance, claims against Cater – who was interviewed by Jones – were dismissed.


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