Full case report
Bridle v Williams
Court High Court
Judge Master Fontaine
Date of Judgment 17 Mar 2010
Defamation – Slander – Strike out – Summary judgment – Qualified privilege – Malice – Abuse of process
The Claimants sued in defamation in respect of words allegedly uttered by the First Defendant, a Health and Safety Inspector, in the course of his employment with the Second Defendant, the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’). During an inspection of asbestos removal at the University of Wales Lampeter the First Defendant was alleged to have said to two of the University’s employees, whom the First Claimant was advising, that the First Claimant “is not a real professor as he claims” and that they “should not believe a word that he says.” The words complained of were said to have damaged the First Claimant in his profession as an adviser on asbestos materials and to have caused the Second Claimant company special damage in the form of the loss of a contract for advice on asbestos removal worth £3,000.
The First Defendant denied uttering the words complained of but accepted he had had a conversation with the University employees about the First Claimant in which he had explained that there was a difference of opinion between him and the HSE on the risks associated with exposure to white asbestos.
The Defendants applied for summary judgment and to have the action struck out on the basis that the occasion of the alleged slander was covered by qualified privilege and there was no evidence of malice and as an abuse of process on the grounds of improper collateral purpose, disproportionate time and expense and/or delay.
The Claimants accepted that the publication was covered by qualified privilege. The issues therefore were:
(1) Whether there was any evidence of malice fit to be left to the tribunal of fact; and
(2) Whether the proceedings were an abuse of process.
Striking out the claim as an abuse of process and granting the Defendants summary judgment:
(1) There was no evidence of malice fit to be left to a jury. Malice could not be inferred from the fact that the First Defendant denied having spoken the words complained of in the face of conflicting evidence that he did speak them. Nor could malice be inferred from the words themselves. An alleged prior incident in which the First Claimant is said to have publicly humiliated the First Defendant (which the First Defendant denied involved himself) did not provide evidence of malice. Even if it had occurred it was mere supposition that it would have caused the First Defendant or others within the HSE’s employ to have some personal animosity towards the First Claimant.
(2) The proceedings were an abuse of process. They had been issued for an improper collateral purpose, namely to provide a public forum for an airing of the dispute between the parties as to the risk posed by material containing white asbestos. The evidence for this consisted of:
(i) an e-mail from the First Claimant to the Chair of the HSE prior to the institution of proceedings in which he had stated that his “main objective” was to get all those responsible for the HSE policy into court and the public arena so that the concerns could at last have a proper hearing; and
(ii) the fact that the Claimants had not issued proceedings in respect of other far more serious allegations against them recorded in permanent form in the print media and available to a much wider audience.
The First Claimant was pursuing a vendetta against the HSE and the alleged incident at the University was merely a peg on which to hang his desire to challenge the HSE’s views on the science. The action had not been brought for the primary purpose of protecting reputation.
Further, the very limited publication, the minimal amount of damages that would be likely to be awarded, the dubious nature of any possible vindication, the transient nature of the alleged defamation, and the poor prospects of success meant that “the claim was not worth the candle.”
The delay in issuing proceedings until just before expiry of the one year limitation period played no part in the court’s decision.
It is rare to find a case failing on so many grounds. Malice is notoriously difficult to prove but the test on a summary judgment application is not a high one: there must be some evidence from which it could be found that the Defendant had no honest belief in the truth of the words complained or had some other dominant improper motive such as would defeat the occasion of qualified privilege. In this case it was the Claimant who was found to have had an improper collateral purpose in issuing the proceedings. Prospective Claimants would be well advised not to make statements as to why they are bringing legal action unless they are strictly in accordance with the purpose for which the cause of action exists, which in defamation is vindication of reputation. The courts will not allow their processes to be used for impermissible purposes and increasingly will bring a halt to defamation proceedings at an early stage where there is little to be gained in seeing an action through to trial and much to be lost in terms of costs and resources.
Treasury Solicitors for the Defendants; Fisher Scoggins Walters LLP for the Claimants
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