ICN Photonics Ltd v Patterson
Reference:  EWCA Civ 343
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Schiemann, Rix & Keene LJJ
Date of judgment: 13 Mar 2003
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Rulings on Meaning - Slander of Goods - Whether defamatory imputation carried about the manufacturer - Function of Appeal Court
Instructing Solicitors: John Collins & Partners for the Claimant; Pinsent Curtis Biddle for the Defendant
The Claimant had brought libel proceedings over a letter written by the Defendant criticising its Nlite laser product. The Defendant had challenged the Claimant’s defamatory meaning under CPR Part 53 PD 4.1 contending that it the words complained of were not capable of bearing that meaning (or any meaning defamatory of the Claimant). The Defendant contended that, if anything, the claim was one for slander of goods necessitating the Claimant to prove malice. Sir Oliver Popplewell had refused to strike out the claimant’s defamation claim and the Defendant appealed.
(1) The proper role of the Court of Appeal in rulings on meaning;
(2) Whether the words were capable of suggesting a meaning defamatory of the claimants, as opposed to representing a slander of goods
(1) The Court of Appeal can intervene where it is apparent that the Judge has gone wrong as a matter of principle or where the decision s/he has reached is ‘patently unsustainable’ – Hinduja v Asia TV Limited  EMLR 516, Cruise v Express Newspapers  QB 931, Geenty v Channel Four Television  EMLR] 524 and Gillick v Brook Advisory Centres  EWCA 1263 considered.
(2) Where the words complained of related to a product, the issue on an application for a ruling as to meaning was whether those words were capable of reflecting adversely on the manufacturer or his conduct of his business as opposed to being disparaging merely of the product. In the instant case, the statement that the product was unsafe unless used with medical supervision was not by itself capable of being defamatory of the manufacturer. Appeal allowed.
The case demonstrates the Court of Appeal’s increasing willingness to get involved in rulings on meaning. If there ever was a “self-denying ordinance” (see Cruise v Express) restricting appeals from rulings on meaning, the combination of this decision and that in Gillick v Brook Advisory Centres has extinguished it. The appellate court is apparently now willing to entertain appeals in relation to both inclusive and exclusive rulings on meaning subject only to their being satisfied that the judge was wrong.