Reference:  EWHC 2037 (QB)
Judge: HHJ Richard Parkes QC
Date of judgment: 29 Jul 2011
Summary: Libel - assessment of damages
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Desmond Browne QC (Claimant)
Jonathan Barnes (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: DLA Piper UK LLP for the Claimant.
The Defendant is the publisher and editor in chief of the Ethiopian Review, an Internet news site. He published an online article alleging that the Claimant’s daughter had been married off at the age of 13 by the Claimant to an elderly and disabled member of the Saudi royal family as a gift, that there are reasonable grounds to suspect the Claimant of having knowingly financed international terrorism, that the Claimant was probably responsible for the murder of a lover supposedly taken by his daughter and the mutilation, burning, parading and hanging of his body in Fallujah, Iraq, and that the Claimant is hunting his daughter (and her supposed daughter) in order that they be flogged, stoned to death or otherwise executed in Saudi Arabia. The Claimant is an international businessman, regularly listed as amongst the world’s richest individuals. He frequently travels to London and is well known here in business circles. He has business and residential interests here, and runs some of his businesses from London. He is in fact on good terms with his daughter, Sarah, the woman featured in the Defendant’s allegations. She is unmarried and has been studying for a bachelor’s degree in England. She lives in the Claimant’s London residence. The Claimant was particularly concerned that the allegations about him would have been read by the large Ethiopian expatriate community in this country, which may number up to 50,000. He is well known amongst that community, not least because he has invested some $4 billion in Ethiopia, and currently has 62,000 people working for him there. The Claimant gave evidence that the Defendant’s allegations are completely untrue. The Court gave the Claimant permission to serve English libel proceedings on the Defendant in the United States, where he is resident. Although he was served with the proceedings, the Defendant took no part in them. The Claimant obtained judgment in default of acknowledgment of service. The Court directed an assessment of damages.
What sum in libel damages should be awarded in the Claimant’s favour.
The evidence from certain members of the Ethiopian expatriate community here established that they did as a matter of course seek to keep up with affairs in Ethiopia, which was plainly a matter of importance to them. They did so by reading, amongst other things, the Defendant’s online postings. The evidence clearly established a factual basis from which the Court could infer that substantial further publication had taken place beyond that to which individual witnesses spoke. The likely readership of the article was several thousand. Its impact on those members of the Ethiopian community who learned of it would have been substantial.
The Claimant has real, substantial and long established connections to this country. He plainly has an established reputation to protect in this jurisdiction. He had been horrified, very angry and upset about the article.
Vindication was the single most important consideration for the Claimant, particularly since he had previously had to take proceedings here to scotch allegations of links to terrorism. While a reasoned judgment may provide some degree of vindication, the likely effect in this case was marginal. The Defendant had aggravated the damage by his behaviour since the Claimant first complained of the article, abusing the Claimant and his lawyers. It was difficult to imagine allegations more serious than had been made. Taking everything into account and looking at it in the round, the proper award for the libel was £175,000.
This judgment contains a useful catalogue of the factors affecting general damages awards for libel at the higher end of the scale. Although the medium concerned was the Internet, with its global reach, the case stands as an example of the English Courts’ preparedness to make a very substantial financial award to vindicate a claimant’s reputation here, where he establishes by evidence the quality of his reputation in this jurisdiction and the extent of the harm that has been done to it. That is notwithstanding that the publication complained of originated by an online posting made overseas.