Wellness fraud Belle Gibson has been ordered to pay $410,000 after she was found to have misled vulnerable Australians with claims that she cured cancer.
Justice Debbie Mortimer handed down the judgment in the Federal Court on Thursday over five contraventions of Australian consumer law. Ms Gibson was not in the courtroom.
Consumer Affairs Victoria launched legal action against Gibson in May last year, alleging false and misleading conduct in relation to her health and unlawful fundraising appeals in 2013 and 2014.
The businesswoman has already been banned from making deceptive claims about her health in connection with wellbeing advice and was ordered by the Federal Court in April to pay $30,000 towards the legal costs of Consumer Affairs Victoria.
The watchdog accused her of engaging in misleading or deceptive commerce by making the claims to promote her app and book, The Whole Pantry.
Gibson was also exposed for failing to hand over the donations and lying about giving $300,000 away to charity.
When told by the court that a judgment would be handed down this week, Ms Belle responded by email on Monday.
“Thank you for the update. Confirming receipt of your email. Much appreciated, Belle,” she wrote.
The $410,000 fine includes:
* Two $90,000 penalties for Ms Gibson’s app sales and company earnings donation claims.
* A $50,000 fine for her app launch donation claims.
* A $150,000 fine for her Schwarz family app donation claims.
* A $30,000 fine for Mother’s Day event donation claims.
The money will be paid into the Victorian Consumer Law Fund.
In her reasons for handing down the penalty, Justice Mortimer said consideration could be given to whether the funds should be donated to the families affected by Ms Gibson’s fraud.
“In that way, some good might still come for the vulnerable people, and the organisations supporting them, which were indirectly drawn into this unconscionable sequence of events,” Ms Mortimer wrote.
Justice Mortimer said Ms Gibson’s deceit of the Schwarz family, who had a son seriously ill with brain cancer, was particularly unconscionable.
Ms Gibson had promised to donate the proceeds of her app sales to the family.
“The particularly disgraceful aspects of Ms Gibson’s conduct in relation to the Schwarz family, and Joshua Schwarz in particular, were that she sought to use the tragic terminal illness of a young boy for her own selfish purposes,” she said.
“She sought to promote herself by comparing herself and her asserted brain cancer with Joshua’s.”
Justice Mortimer was particularly scathing of Ms Gibson’s failure to attend the proceedings against her and explain her behaviour.
“In looking at the total sum which is appropriate to make Ms Gibson pay, there can be no allowance made for contrition, remorse, apology or acceptance of responsibility by Ms Gibson,” she said.
“Once again, it appears she has put her own interests before those of anyone else. If there is one theme or pattern which emerges through her conduct it is her relentless obsession with herself and what best serves her interests.”