Allie v Foodworld Stores Distribution Centre (Pty) Ltd & others (case 353/02 SCA)
Where an employer makes a defamatory statement about an employee, this may be justified. The employer is entitled to rely on the fact that the statement was the truth and in the public interest.
A supermarket manager sued because he had been accused of theft and had actually been called a thief in the hearing. When this matter was heard in the Magistrate's Court, it was held that there had indeed been defamation and damages of R22 500 were awarded. This judgment was taken on appeal and the High Court dismissed the employee's claims. He then appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals (SCA).
The facts of the case were that, following a report of fraud and theft by the store manager, he was summonsed to a meeting to account for the irregularities in the accounts. The SCA accepted the employer's version that the manager confessed to his involvement in a long-standing practice of theft and asked for forgiveness. The matter was discussed at a monthly managers' meeting where everyone knew the identity of the manager involved. As a result of this consultation, the manager was retrenched. The question on appeal was whether the discussion at the managers' meeting was defamatory. Accepting that he was accused of theft at the meeting, the SCA found that this was defamatory of him.
However the court said that the employer was entitled to rely on the fact that the statement was the truth and in the public interest. As a result the appeal was dismissed.
Extract from the judgment:
[para 55] The accusation of theft was communicated to managers within the supermarket chain. They surely had an interest in having information imparted to them that a co-manager had recently abused the prescribed credit purchasing procedure towards a dishonest end.
[para 57] It was important for the respondents and arguably their duty to have the issue out in the open and decisively dealt with. [The] co-managers had an interest in the manner in which senior employees conducted themselves and in the consequences flowing from the theft of the company's property. In my view the defence of truth and public interest was established by the respondents.