Mayhem on the mountain: Inside the Tamborine State High School defamation case.
Mayhem on the mountain: Inside the Tamborine State High School defamation case.

Three secret letters, ‘Rot in hell bitch’

IF only they could get their hands on three letters.

Mrs Proudlock's barrister, Michael de Waard, and the Baluskases were determined to expose the Education Department letters outlining the reasons for her suspension in 2016 - which to this day remain a closely guarded secret.


Mr de Waard argued that the documents would prove his client's case that Mrs Brose was "a bad principal".

The letters would show Mrs Brose's reputation was "already ruined" before the Facebook posts were made, Ms Baluskas said.

"How can we be responsible for ruining her reputation if she didn't already have a good reputation?" she told the court.

Her husband said the documents would help prove that "everything I said in my publication on Facebook is true".

"If she (Mrs Brose) has nothing to hide, why is she keeping it a secret?" he asked Judge Muir.

 

Donna Baluskas. Picture: Adam Head
Donna Baluskas. Picture: Adam Head

Judge Muir ordered the three letters be handed over, though Mrs Brose's barrister flagged an immediate appeal to Queensland's highest court.

Before Mrs Brose could be interrogated over the documents, her lawyers reached a settlement with Ms Proudlock.

The case against the aged-care nurse was discontinued and she did not have to pay Mrs Brose a cent.

The Baluskases and Laura Lawson were left to battle on alone, without lawyers.

 

The parents took different approaches to defending the proceedings. Some denied certain imputations alleged by Mrs Brose, while others claimed their posts had only been read by a small number of readers and not as widely as Mrs Brose alleged. They all pleaded the defence of triviality, while Mr Baluskas and Ms Lawson also raised other various defences.

Hours of emotional evidence were punctuated by moments of high farce.

Mrs Brose claimed the Baluskases made "pig-snorting noises" at her during a preliminary court hearing and that Mr Baluskas had placed intimidating notes with the words "wink-wink" in the letterbox of her home.

The pig noises - the court was told - occurred when Ms Baluskas saw Mrs Brose in the courthouse toilets.

Ms Baluskas insisted she was "not a pig-snorter" and asked the principal to demonstrate the alleged noise.

Over the objections of her own barrister, the principal snorted like a pig from the witness box.

'ROT IN HELL BITCH'

Mrs Brose launched her marathon legal case in a bid, she said, to restore her good reputation.

But at the end of the second week, as the trial dragged on unabated, a clearly exasperated Judge Muir issued an ominous warning from the bench.

No one, it seemed, was going to come out of this mess well.

In an extraordinary address she urged all the parties to try to reach a settlement out of the courtroom, because if she was forced to a judgment, none of the parties was likely to be happy with the result.

"At this point I can tell you that I expect my findings will not reflect well on any of the parties in this case,'' she said.

"I expect that my findings may not reflect the outcome that any of the parties in this case are hoping for.

"I expect I will be making findings of credit that will reflect adversely potentially on all of you."

Judge Muir urged all the parties to try to reach a settlement out of the courtroom.
Judge Muir urged all the parties to try to reach a settlement out of the courtroom.


Judge Muir said Mrs Brose had given evidence that all she wanted was an apology and an undertaking that the alleged defamation would not be repeated.

"It seems to me timely and prudent to all of you to take some time over the weekend to review your expectations about this case because as I have said, the outcomes may not be what any of you are hoping for," she said.

"I want to encourage you all to engage, if you can, in some meaningful negotiations in an attempt to resolve this matter."

But the words fell on deaf ears.

Within minutes of the court adjourning, raised voices echoed from a meeting room in the court complex as attempted peace talks between Mrs Brose's lawyers and the defendants exploded.

There would be no truce.

The legal battle in Courtroom 13 - Brose v Baluskas & others - raged on for another fortnight.

On a dramatic last day of the trial the court was rocked by wild scenes, with a wailing Ms Baluskas collapsing at the bar table during her closing submission.

Ms Baluskas told Judge Muir she stood to "lose everything".

With her voice quivering she said she "shouldn't even be here".

"I'm done your honour," she sobbed, before collapsing in her chair at the bar table.

Her husband tried to console her, while her elderly mother, who had watched every minute of every day, rushed forward from the public gallery to comfort her distraught daughter, draping an arm around her shoulder as she helped her from the room.

"Rot in hell you bitch," a supporter said during the chaotic scenes.

Mrs Baluskas' hysterical shrieks were so loud they carried clearly to the courtroom through two sets of doors as her husband attempted to start his own closing argument.

Mrs Brose had initially sought $1.2 million in damages, $150,000 from each of the eight former parents of students at her school.

When some settled the figure ballooned to $220,000 for those remaining, but by trial's end, with only four defendants left standing, her demand was more modest.

Mrs Brose wanted a maximum $110,000 in damages from Mr Baluskas, claiming he had continued his slurs even after he was sued.

 

Tamborine Mountain State High Principal Tracey Brose had initially sought as much as $1.76 million in damages from the eight former parents of students at her school. Picture: Adam Head
Tamborine Mountain State High Principal Tracey Brose had initially sought as much as $1.76 million in damages from the eight former parents of students at her school. Picture: Adam Head

 

She asked Judge Muir to award her no more than $95,000 in damages from Mrs Baluskas and $70,000 from Ms Lawson.

Ms Lawson told the court: "I have nothing to give the plaintiff. My car is 18 years old. I have no assets to sell."

 

SHOULD IT HAVE COME TO THIS?

Nearly four years after the rush of petty comments and name-calling on Facebook, Judge Muir was troubled as she pondered the case.

"How do I unravel this?" she asked Mrs Brose's barrister.

"(Your client) talks about hurt and distress but there is no medical evidence in this case at all.

"There were other circumstances at the time including the suspension.

"For a teacher of 19 years getting a letter saying she was going to be suspended and it not having any effect on her is most surprising I must say."

Judge Muir questioned the inconsistencies in settlements reached with defendants and why some people who posted disparaging remarks online were not pursued at all.

"What do I make of the decision to settle with the seventh defendant (Mrs Proudlock) - who just happened to be the only one who was represented, for nil, when their barrister was about to cross-examine the plaintiff in court?" the Judge said.

It is a case which has captivated watchers and, outside the courtroom, raised uncomfortable questions.

Could this legal drama, heartache and ruinous lawyer's picnic have been avoided?

The slurs were serious and Mrs Brose was entitled to her day in court.

It is now nearly four years later and all three remaining defendants say they have no money left.

 

 

 

Miguel Baluskas, one of the parents being sued by Tamborine Mountain high school principal Tracey Brose, and his wife were declared bankrupt in 2019. Picture: Liam Kidston.
Miguel Baluskas, one of the parents being sued by Tamborine Mountain high school principal Tracey Brose, and his wife were declared bankrupt in 2019. Picture: Liam Kidston.

Even if Mrs Brose wins the bitterly-fought case, will her victory simply be pyrrhic?

Both sides have spent so much money, how could there possibly be a real winner in all this?

Was a courtroom the best forum to solve this dispute?

And what of the culture of vitriol seen so often online?

Once, when a defamation case was launched in an Australian court, it was more than likely a media company or publisher that would be the target.

Increasingly, it is now private citizens who have made comments online that find themselves clogging courtrooms across the country facing ruinous bills for their own legal costs, let alone any damages they may have to pay.

The modern cases have prompted a review of defamation law in Australia, which will consider whether to introduce a "serious harm test".

If introduced, the law would force plaintiffs like Mrs Brose to prove they suffered serious harm as a result of the defamation.

The Brose case has also exposed the naivety of many millions of Aussies who casually comment on social media every day - unaware of the potential consequences if they overstep the mark.

 

 

Law academic Michael Douglas said the Tamborine case was "another indication that the general public probably misunderstand the risks of criticising people on social media".

"Anyone with something spicy to say online could end up facing a lawsuit," he said.

"If you are sued in defamation, it is up to you to prove what you said was true. This can be trickier than it sounds. Get the best lawyer you can.

"Even if you win, it can make your life miserable.

"Next time you want to have a go at someone online, take a breath, and consider whether you'd be better off just letting it go."

Mr Douglas said defamation laws were changing, but it would not necessarily protect people from cases like the Mt Tamborine saga.

"The balance will be shifted to make it harder to successfully sue someone in defamation. However, even once those reforms go through, we will still see a lot of cases just like this," he said.

 

 

Mt Tamborine State School Principal Tracey Brose was suspended in 2016 but reinstated four months later. Picture: Jason O’Brien
Mt Tamborine State School Principal Tracey Brose was suspended in 2016 but reinstated four months later. Picture: Jason O’Brien

 

 

And what of Queensland's Education Department?

Ms Brose was reinstated to her job four months after being suspended.

Tamborine Mountain State High School had one of the highest expulsion rates in Queensland before the bitter row.

In 2014, 23 students were expelled or "excluded" from Tamborine Mountain, at a time when just 704 students were enrolled.

While Mrs Brose may not have been involved in all 23 cases, of schools having a comparable student base, only one recorded more exclusions, while many of the schools with higher expulsion figures had double or even triple the number of total enrolments.

 

Despite being one of the smallest public high schools in the state, Tamborine Mountain saw 39 students expelled in the two years before the suspension of Principal Tracey Brose. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Gosling
Despite being one of the smallest public high schools in the state, Tamborine Mountain saw 39 students expelled in the two years before the suspension of Principal Tracey Brose. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Gosling

 

Dozens of public high schools across the state did not record any exclusions during the same period.

The same number, 23, was the total number of exclusions at Tamborine Mountain in the two years after Mrs Brose was reinstated.

What will Judge Muir's warning mean for Mrs Brose's career after the judgment is handed down?

The judge has flagged "making findings of credit that will reflect adversely potentially on all" involved in the trial.

If Judge Muir finds issues with Mrs Brose's credibility, can she simply walk back into the grounds of Tamborine Mountain as principal unscathed?

Education authorities have adamantly refused to weigh into the case.

 

 

NEXT UP: CAN I BORROW $15, SON?

OTHER CHAPTERS IN THE SERIES:

CHAPTER ONE: LIVES DESTROYED BY JUST 43 WORDS

CHAPTER TWO: PRINCIPAL FROM HELL, OR HELL OF A PRINCIPAL?

CHAPTER THREE: THE FATEFUL EIGHT

CHAPTER FOUR: MY ENTIRE FUTURE EXPLODED

CHAPTER FIVE: TELL YOUR CLIENT TO SHOVE HER OFFER UP HER ARSE

CHAPTER SIX: TEMPERS FLARE, TEARS FLOW

CHAPTER SEVEN: THREE SECRET LETTERS

CHAPTER EIGHT: CAN I BORROW $15, SON?



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