US Tobacco v BBC

Reference: [1998] EMLR 816

Court: Court of Appeal

Judge: Purchas, Nicholls & Russell LJJ

Date of judgment: 11 Mar 1988


Defamation - Libel - justification of meanings not complained of - twin defamatory stings - complaint of one only - defendant justifying both - whether case to be confined to one sting only


Instructing Solicitors: Joynson-Hicks for the Claimant


The Claimant manufactured snuff and chewing tobacco. The BBC programme That’s Life criticised the Claimant for marketing the product to children, in breach of an agreement with the Department of Health, and alleged that the product caused oral cancer. The Claimant sued for libel, complaining of the former allegation (‘the breach allegation’) and not the latter (‘the health allegation’). The BBC sought to justify both allegations. The Claimant applied to strike out the latter part of the plea, saying the two stings were separate and distinct. It also made some limited admissions as to the health allegation, which it said would take months to try, with extensive expert evidence required. The master granted the Claimant’s application and the judge dismissed an appeal. The BBC appealed to the Court of Appeal.


(1) Whether the two stings were wholly separate and distinct.
(2) Whether, if not, the BBC should be permitted to persist in a plea of justification relating to the health allegation.


Dismissing the appeal
(1) The two stings were not wholly separate and distinct, but were inter-related.
(2) However, public policy required that the trial of libel actions should be kept strictly to the issues necessary for fair resolution of the dispute. In the light of the admissions made by the Claimant, it was not necessary to investigate the health allegations in order to have a fair trial of the action.


The important proposition established in this case, that an otherwise permissible line of defence could be struck out on case management grounds, remained buried for some 10 years due to lack of reporting. It re-emerged in the course of argument in Cruise v Express [1999] QB 931, whereupon the decision was finally reported. It has surfaced occasionally in subsequent cases.