Court overturns $360,000 defamation win in Balmain neighbours’ feud
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Court overturns $360,000 defamation win in Balmain neighbours’ feud

It is the Balmain neighbourhood feud that drew comparisons to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and its warring Montague and Capulet families.

Now the state’s highest court has overturned a decision ordering Sydney lawyer Vanessa Hutley to pay her neighbour $360,000 in damages for defamation after she accused him of making her family’s lives “hell” in an A Current Affair broadcast in July, 2016.

Lawyer Vanessa Hutley and her neighbour’s house in Balmain. Ms Hutley won her appeal against a decision ordering her to pay $360,000 in damages.

Lawyer Vanessa Hutley and her neighbour’s house in Balmain. Ms Hutley won her appeal against a decision ordering her to pay $360,000 in damages.Credit:Jessica Hromas, Nine

In a decision on Tuesday, the Court of Appeal found Ms Hutley was speaking the truth when she accused Anthony Cosco of bullying her and her family and endangering their lives by blocking a vent on their property. Accordingly, the court dismissed his defamation claim against her.

The ruling marks a sharp reversal of a decision by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Rothman, who delivered an excoriating judgment in July last year that branded Ms Hutley the chief antagonist in the “petty neighbourhood squabble”.

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The Court of Appeal found Ms Hutley had established a defence of truth to four of five defamatory meanings conveyed by the broadcast, including the most serious claims of bullying and endangering life. A defence of contextual truth was established in relation to the fifth meaning.

The Supreme Court heard Mr Cosco pleaded guilty to malicious damage for spraying expanding foam into a kitchen vent for a fan over Ms Hutley’s gas stove. He believed the vent, located on a wall at the boundary of the properties, was a hazard and should be repositioned.

“The clearest act of bullying in the present case was the malicious damage to the flue of the extractor fan from the kitchen used by the appellant and her family,” said Justice John Basten, with whom justices Robert Macfarlan and Richard White agreed.

“Threatening to damage someone else’s home because they do not promptly comply with your requests is the act of a bully, as is carrying out the threat.”

The court said briefing a private investigator to look into Ms Hutley and her husband also amounted to bullying.

Mr Cosco had risked endangering the lives of Ms Hutley and her family by blocking the vent with flammable foam, the court found.

“The thrust of the imputation was that the action of [Mr Cosco] ... could have led to a fire or small explosion in the kitchen, if the stove had been in operation at the time he sprayed the foam into the vent,” Justice Basten said.

During the original trial, Mr Cosco’s barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, SC, had alleged Ms Hutley hurled abuse at Mr Cosco from her balcony.

“It sounds like something out of Shakespeare,” Justice Rothman said.

“It does Your Honour, it does sound like the Globe [Theatre],” Ms Chrysanthou replied.

“Verona,” said Ms Hutley’s barrister, Bruce McClintock, SC, before reciting lines from the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.

The court ordered Mr Cosco to pay Ms Hutley’s costs.

The Herald is owned by Nine Entertainment Co, which also produces A Current Affair.

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