Two men who run a prominent construction industry podcast that aired remarks about cat-calling and trying to grab women have filed a $15 million defamation lawsuit against a carpenter who criticized the remarks on social media.
The offensive remarks were made on the Toronto-based podcast The Construction Life, which bills itself as shedding light on “the good, the bad, and the ugly” parts of the industry, with the goal of improving the sector.
The podcast’s 145th episode — which featured host Manny Neves and Jim Caruk, a recurring guest on the show, speaking with a plumber, Danny — included the following exchange when it was posted on May 8:
“Today things are different. Like, if you see a sexy woman on the street when we were 20 years old, you whistle. Today you even look at them, you got the cops behind you, they’re charging you. It’s the truth. It’s ridiculous what’s going on today,” Danny says.
“I’d still whistle,” Caruk responds.
“Yeah, but …,” someone says before Neves asks: “You’d still whistle?”
“I’d still whistle,” Caruk says.
“I’d probably put my hand out and ya know, try to reach [inaudible],” Danny adds.
The men laugh after that. Someone can be heard saying, “I wouldn’t …,” before trailing off.
CBC News is not publishing Danny’s full name because he is not part of the legal action.
The lawsuit, filed in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice on May 28, claims that neither Neves nor Caruk “agreed with or condoned the comments made.”
That section was edited out of the podcast on May 14 following a complaint from Natasha Fritz, the owner of Natural Carpentry.
Lawsuit alleges reputations, business harmed
Despite stating in the lawsuit that Fritz raised “important points” and apologizing to her via email, Neves, Caruk and the company Candelaria Pictures Corporation are now suing her for a total of $15,250,000 for posting an edited version of the exchange on her Instagram page that puts the comments next to unattributed statistics about sexual harassment and assault. Fritz’s edited version repeats chunks of the audio — specifically “I’d still whistle” — but does not change any of the words. The men’s laughter is also played multiple times.
Neither side in the lawsuit would agree to an interview with CBC News, citing the ongoing litigation, which hasn’t been tested in court at this time.
CBC News spoke briefly with Fritz, who provided some documents and an audio recording of the original podcast, before saying she could no longer comment because of the lawsuit.
The men’s lawsuit alleges, among other things, that Fritz’s social media criticism amounts to “inciting harassment and wide-spread hate” of them online.
It alleges that Fritz’s posts harmed their reputations, business and mental and physical well-being. The lawsuit also argues that “perspectives and opinions voiced by guests” on the podcast do not reflect the views of the people who make it.
Neves has produced nearly 150 episodes of the show, which is broadcast on a wide range of platforms. Caruk, meanwhile, has appeared on a number of television shows, including several HGTV series. One episode of The Construction Life calls him “The Godfather of Construction.”
Some cat-calling comments remain in podcast
The podcast in its current state still contains comments about harassment, including an anecdote about a work crew cat-calling Caruk’s “significant other” while she was running past a job site. Caruk says she wasn’t mad about the comment on her physical appearance, while the other men say it should be taken as a “compliment.”
After that, Neves says: “Someone told me in my earlier years that the difference between sexual harassment and flirting is if you find the other person attractive,” prompting more laughter from the men.
“Am I gonna upset a bunch of people now?” Neves says after that.
CBC News asked Neves and Caruk, via their lawyer, why they didn’t remove all comments about sexual harassment from the podcast.
Lawyer Rob Moubarak, based in Vaughan, Ont., north of Toronto, said in an email he was unable to comment.
Fritz, meanwhile, hasn’t filed a statement of defence at this point. The lawsuit claims she told the men on May 28, one day after receiving a cease-and-desist letter, that she would only remove her posts if they issued public apologies.
“The plaintiffs state that this is the first time Ms. Fritz ever made such a demand, and that such demand is unreasonable in the circumstances,” the lawsuit states.
Comments demeaning, dehumanizing, expert says
Farrah Khan, the manager of Ryerson University’s Consent Comes First program and the Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education in Toronto, said the comments are simply not OK.
“Just because things were different back then doesn’t mean they were good,” she said, referring to comments on the podcast about the construction industry 20 years ago.
Khan said it’s especially problematic when people who hold themselves up as industry leaders reinforce a negative stereotype about construction workers.
“What are they saying: That is just a part of your job — you’re supposed to do that kind of behaviour? I don’t think so.”
Khan said the comments will also likely hurt many women who work in the male-dominated sector. (Statistics Canada data from 2018 showed just 3.7 per cent of the 934,000 people working in industrial, electrical and construction trades in the previous decade were women.)
“Even if the comments aren’t directly at you … someone is talking about a woman’s body that is not your own, but talking about what they want to do to it,” Khan said.
The result, she said, is demeaning and dehumanizing.
“What you’re saying to that person is: I think about you that way, too. I think about all women that way.”
Online criticism, including hashtags, at centre of case
Fritz didn’t immediately post the offensive audio clip on her social media channels.
Instead, here’s what’s alleged in the documentation introduced in the statement of claim and corroborated by information obtained by CBC News:
When Fritz heard the podcast, she sent Neves a direct message on Instagram flagging the offensive comments and asking to be on the show to explain why they were problematic. Neves indicated he was open to that, writing: “love to have you on the show and discuss this.”
Fritz was one of the first-ever guests on the podcast at an earlier time.
Neves and Caruk set up two teleconferences but failed to call Fritz. In the lawsuit, the men say they missed the meeting due to “unavoidable and unexpected scheduling conflicts.”
Neves also sent Fritz an email stating that he and Caruk had “decided against recording a show about sexual harassment.”
The email goes on to apologize for offending Fritz. Neves also wrote: “The Construction Life podcast has never been about offending anyone but if someone does bring up an issue we will listen, review the concerns and address it. That being said our show might not be for everyone.”
He then offers again to set up a conference call in the coming weeks. Fritz said she was no longer interested.
A few days later, Fritz made her Instagram post. The post doesn’t name the men or their company, but at least one person in the comments named The Construction Life.
Fritz engaged with some of those comments, leaving statements like: “I was genuinely hoping they would hold themselves accountable, apparently they don’t want to do that,” and “I expected more from people who say they want to improve the industry.”
Fritz’s post, the men’s lawsuit alleges, was designed to “manipulate the narrative.” They also highlight her use of the hashtags #misogynymondays, #sexualharassment, #didimissthejoke and #itsnotfunny.
Fritz also made a similar post on her locked TikTok account.
The lawsuit claims her Instagram video was watched 2,645 times and had 79 comments. When CBC News checked on Monday, that count was at 2,889 views and 84 comments.
Number of defamation lawsuits ‘exploding’: lawyer
Andrea Gonsalves, a lawyer with Stockwoods LLP in Toronto who specializes in defamation cases, says the substantial size of the lawsuit will add to the scrutiny it receives. The largest Canadian defamation awards, she said, have been in the $2 million to $3 million range, but the typical awards are much lower than that and most cases are dismissed.
Gonsalves said the growth of defamation cases based on people’s social media comments is “exploding.”
“We have to take a step back and remember that defamation laws are quite archaic,” she said, noting the rules on the book long pre-date social media.
In general, Gonsalves said, Canadians have the right to protect their reputations. However, they also have a right to freely express themselves — including through online debates.
So just as the law gives broad protection for a podcast to have a wide range of conversations, it offers the same broad protection to potential critics, she said.
At this point, it’s likely too early in the case to know what will happen, Gonsalves said, adding that lawyers like herself will be watching the outcome closely.