A Blenheim food industry worker is struggling to cope after being "maliciously targeted" by a hate campaign.
The victim, identified as Sam - a fake name to protect their identity and gender - has been living on edge after a "derogatory" flyer was circulated around their local community overnight on June 26 claiming they spit in customers' food.
Multiple threats have also been sent to Sam from recently-made Facebook profiles, including one private message saying: "Best stay in side for a while... don't want anyone to do something to you [sic]" and "it would be a shame if you were to end your life before we get to carry this on".
Earlier in June, Sam's car stopped on the way to work. A local mechanic suspects antifreeze had been poured into the petrol tank.
The fuel door appeared to have been popped open with a screwdriver - and the damage totals $767.50 - which Sam is being forced to pay.
Hand delivered letters appeared in Sam's mailbox days later on June 15th with photos printed out from their social media pages.
Sam believes the incidents are linked, and has been in shock, terrified of what will come next after the flyer, which included Sam’s real name and photograph, was put in mailboxes across Blenheim.
"I don't know who could be so cruel? I'm struggling to cope," Sam told Newshub.
Sam loves their job in the kitchen of a popular restaurant, working six days each week, but is now scared to go to work, which was once their happy place.
Sam is having trouble getting to sleep and has lost all self-confidence.
- Do you know more? Email email@example.com in confidence.
The flyer is written by someone claiming to be a co-worker of Sam’s and states: "I have seen a co-worker spit in the food", adding they "constantly do this".
The author claims they have "been to management" at the store but "have had no success".
It says there won't be any evidence because Sam is "very clever from hiding it from the cameras" before signing off - a "concerned" worker of the same business.
A spokesperson for the restaurant told Newshub it does not believe the letter originated from a co-worker as claimed.
"A member of our staff has been maliciously targeted and the police are now involved."
Customers have been going into the restaurant and asking to know more about the claim made in the flyer.
Sam's employer is offering ongoing support as police investigate but top defamation lawyer Chris Patterson says the level of slander could make the person who published and distributed the flyer liable for reputational damages in civil court or face criminal charges.
A defamatory statement is one that lowers a person's reputation in the esteem of right thinking people or causes them ridicule or hatred, or have people shun or avoid them.
"If the person that's made the claims can't prove that they're true, or that it's their honest opinion, they would have committed the act of defamation," Patterson told Newshub.
In civil law, a complainant could bring a claim of malicious falsehood if a person has maliciously made a false statement about them and seek damages.
"In defamation or malicious falsehood, it's normally compensatory damages, and that is seeking a reward from a jury or a judge to say, hey my reputation has been damaged and I want to be compensated for that and in extreme cases they can seek punitive damages."
But it's not quite so simple.
Bringing a defamation case carries a number of costs, one of them is the legal costs involved, and a defamation case taken all the way to trial is quite expensive.
"We're talking six figures generally speaking. I do accept that a defamation claim is more the area for the well-resourced in terms of being able to take it trial," Patterson.
"It's also going to take time, and that time and cost can have an impact on a claimant in terms of the distress they suffer going through that, because in many respects they are reliving the fact that these defamatory statements were made about them."
Being defamed can have a devastating effect on a person's self-esteem and their mental health.
Patterson says most defamation claims in New Zealand settle and in his experience, 99 out of 100 cases never see a courtroom.
In terms of a criminal response, if a victim believes criminal harassment has occurred, then a complaint can be made with police.
If a person is convicted of criminal harassment, they can be jailed for up to two years.
Sergeant Tara Lindsay told Newshub a report was made about the flyer drop last weekend and enquiries remain ongoing.
"The content of the handwritten flyers were of a derogatory nature and were distributed to several mailboxes throughout the Blenheim region.
"Enquiries are ongoing to locate the person responsible and police would like to speak to anyone who may have witnessed a flyer being distributed.
"We would also ask anyone who received a flyer and has CCTV that captured it being delivered, to please contact us."
Any complaint regarding an issue with a restaurant is managed by the Ministry for Primary Industries. An MPI spokesperson told Newshub information received was passed on to police who are leading the matter.
Environmental Health Officer Karen Winter at Marlborough District Council told Newshub the restaurant advised them of the matter on Monday 30 June and said the police were involved.