Full case report

Briggs v Jordan

Reference [2013] EWHC 3205 (QB)
Court High Court, Queen's Bench Division

Judge Tugendhat J

Date of Judgment 24 Oct 2013


Summary

Libel – meaning – natural and ordinary meaning – innuendo meaning – breach of confidence – misuse of private information – strike out – Jameel abuse


Facts

C and D1 jointly founded phone business “The Pocket Phone Shop” in 1994, owning 50% each. They successfully grew the business and sold it in 2000.

In June 2012, D1 wrote and, with Ds 2 and 3, published the hardback version of his autobiography Be Careful What You Wish For. The paperback version was published in May 2013, but the passages complained of in the action were deleted.

C pleaded a draft Amended Particulars of Claim pleading claims in defamation, breach of confidence and misuse of private information.

C complained of passages in the hardback bearing what he said was the natural and ordinary meaning that he

“was sacked by his previous employer in the mobile telephone business for repeatedly sending pompous and frivolous messages, was given to panic and was ineffective in the face of ordinary business challenges”.

He also attributed to the passages the innuendo meaning that he had

“misrepresented himself to others and in newspaper interviews and articles as being a key figure in building the business from a start-up to a highly successful company, when in fact, he played only a limited and subsidiary role compared to Simon Jordan”.

C claimed that D had breached a confidentiality clause in a share sale agreement relating to their sale of the business. The clause stipulated that the provisions of the agreement and its subject matter were confidential.

C also claimed that his private information, namely that he suffered from the chronic fatigue disease M.E., had been misused by its publication in the book.

C applied for permission to amend his Particulars of Claim. D had applied for a ruling that the words complained of in the unamended Particulars of Claim were not capable of  bearing the defamatory meanings attributed to them by C, and for an order that the claim be struck out as an abuse. D then submitted that the application for permission to amend should be refused for substantially the same reasons.


Issue

1) Whether the words were capable of being defamatory of C, either

a) in their natural and ordinary meaning; or

b) in their innuendo meaning.

2) Should the claim in breach of confidence be struck out as an abuse of process?

3) Should the claim in misuse of private information also be struck out?


Held

Striking out C’s claim, and dismissing his application to amend his Particulars of Claim

1) The words were not capable of being defamatory of C.

a) The words complained of could not be understood by an ordinary reasonable reader to allege that C sent frivolous messages; the allegation that C sent pompous messages did not surmount the threshold of seriousness necessary for the words to be considered defamatory; and the incidents described in the book were not capable of meaning that C was “given to panic”.

b) There were two difficulties with C’s pleaded innuendo meaning. Firstly, he did not identify in his pleading any representations made by himself, or any newspaper interviews or articles. Second, although the words complained of alleged that he played a limited and subsidiary role, this was not necessarily inconsistent with a representation about being a key figure in building the business.

2) There were no matters pleaded that constituted disclosures of the provisions of the Share Sale Agreement, or the subject matter of it, and C could not establish any loss resulting from any alleged breach of confidence. There was no continuing threat to publish, and the information was very old.

3) Information about a person’s health is generally information in respect of which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This claim would not have been struck out in the original Particulars of Claim but since it was the only part of the claim in that category, it should not be allowed to go forward as part of the original claim. If advanced, it should be as a new claim.


Comment

The decision illustrates the difficulties surrounding the pleading of meaning in this area of the law. The dangers of pleading meanings which, as here, fail to cross a threshold of seriousness will only be increased by the introduction of the “serious harm” test in s.1 of the Defamation Act 2013, which raises the bar from the test at common law.  Where an innuendo meaning is pleaded, it is important to identify where possible specific publications which support its existence.


Instructing Solicitors

RadcliffesLeBrasseur for C; Simons Muirhead and Burton for the Ds