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Payout for Adelaide woman defamed by Today Tonight


A woman who won a long-running defamation case against Channel Seven over a Today Tonight episode that depicted her as a welfare cheat has been awarded $280,000 in damages.

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The episode, which aired in 2011, depicted Malgorzata Barbara Poniatowska as having defrauded and cheated Centrelink of $20,000 in single-parent benefits while working for Adelaide building company Hickinbotham, and having avoided prosecution by finding a loophole in social security law.

Poniatowska sued the broadcaster for defamation and eventually won on appeal to the Full Court of the Supreme Court in September, which ruled that Channel Seven failed to prove the imputation in the Today Tonight episode that she was guilty of fraud and failed to establish other defamation defences, including “fair comment”.

In a judgement handed down last week and published today, the Supreme Court awarded Poniatowska $80,000 in damages for economic losses and $200,000 for non-economic losses.

It’s the latest peak on Poniatowska’s more than decade-long rollercoaster ride through the South Australian legal system.

In 2008, three years before the Today Tonight story aired, Poniatowska was charged with 17 counts of obtaining a financial advantage by omission.

She maintained her innocence and foreshadowed that she would plead not guilty but, on the eve of her hearing in 2009, accepted legal advice to plead guilty instead. (In a separate case that same year, the Federal Court awarded Poniatowska $466,000 in damages for a sexual harassment and sex discrimination case against Hickinbotham Homes.)

Poniatowska soon recanted her guilty plea and appealed her conviction, successfully: the Supreme Court found the charges had been “misconceived”.

Then, the Director of Public Prosecutions asked the High Court of Australia for leave to appeal the decision.

The High Court rejected the DPP’s application on the morning of an October day in 2011.

That evening, the offending story ran on Today Tonight.

Last week’s judgement, awarding damages to Poniatowska over the story, is the latest in a series of court cases involving the current affairs show.

Channel Seven cancelled the South Australian iteration of the show in November.

Late last month, the Supreme Court dismissed a defamation case brought by Benjamin Eustice against Channel Seven and now-SA-BEST MLC Frank Pangallo, concerning a story he produced during his time as a Today Tonight reporter in 2012.

The court found that descriptions the then-used car salesman’s conduct towards one of his customers “amply” warranted the way he was described on the program, as “a snake”, “a crook” and “a fraudster”.

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