In Woodward v Grice  EWHC 1292 (QB) the High Court considered the appropriate level of damages to award against a fan of the club for libellous statements made on an online forum.
Graham Woodward was employed as an in-house lawyer for Blackpool FC. He brought a claim against fan Andrew Grice for posting the following words: “The well-known struck off solicitor Graham Woodward” on the online forum ‘fansonline’. The words complained of featured in a thread entitled ‘Phase Two…who’s involved’ which alluded to the separate legal actions between the clubs owner Owen Oyston, and its fans.
The club’s owner Owen Oyston, and Chairman Karl Oyston (Owen’s son) have had a difficult relationship with Blackpool fans since the club’s promotion and then relegation from the Premier League. A number of fans have been unhappy with the way the Oystons have run the club, complaining that profits have not been invested back into the club. Some fans have held protests and boycotted games. Mr Woodward’s claim is the latest of a series of claims concerning the club to come before the libel courts.
The posting also appeared on ‘backhenrystreet’ another football forum. Mr Grice denied posting the words on that forum, nevertheless damages were sought for the republication.
Mr Grice refused to accept that Mr Woodward had never been struck off until he had been shown the the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA)’s website during the hearing of an application for an injunction in August 2015.
Mr Woodward’s case was that a false allegation of this nature would have caused, or was likely to cause, serious harm to his personal and professional reputation.
The claimant had previously obtained summary judgment in December 2015 and thus King J’s role was limited to the assessment of damages and other relief.
Despite evidence that the post had only been viewed by a small number of people and was shortly removed from the site, the Court held that the words complained of constituted a “serious libel and was not one to be construed as some mere tongue in cheek saloon bar banter” as was submitted by the defendant.
King J was satisfied that the publication on the second website ‘backhenrystreet’ was a foreseeable repetition of the initial libel, and that ‘it is the nature of defamatory statements that they are often repeated and passed on when they first appear on an internet website’. Accordingly, damages were based on the injury to reputation suffered as a result of both posts.
King J stated that if there were no aggravating factors, he would have awarded Mr Woodward £10,000 for harm to his reputation, hurt feelings and distress. However, due to Mr Grice’s persistence in maintaining that Mr Woodward had been struck off, his motivation and reasoning for posting the words, and his state of mind at the time, a further £8,000 in aggravated damages was considered appropriate to ensure that Mr Woodward was properly vindicated.
Finally, King J agreed with the Claimant a permanent injunction was necessary to prevent the risk of republication. The judge remarked
“Although the Defendant says he has no intention of repeating the words complained of, given my findings of the tendency of the Defendant to shoot from the hip without thinking through the implications of what he is saying, I consider the risk of repetition to be a real and continuing one.”
This post originally appeared on the Brett Wilson Media Law Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks
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