The High Court has awarded £50,000 in damages to a US lawyer and his firm in a case involving defamation arising from internet abuse.
The Bussey Law Firm PC and Timothy Raymond Bussey v Jason Page (aka Jay Page) case concerned a defamatory allegation that was posted on Bussey’s Google Maps profile alongside a number of positive reviews of his firm and the services offered, which rated them as ‘excellent’.
The judgment stated the offending post by Jason Page, who is based in England, was not only directly defamatory of Bussey, a lawyer practising in the US state of Colorado and his firm, of which he is the principal, ‘but also had the effect of undermining those commendations’.
Sir David Eady, who noted that there has never been any suggestion the allegations were true, said the central issue was whether the claimants could prove to the required standard that Page was responsible for the original posting on 27 January 2012.
He said it was made clear at the outset of the trial that no reliance was placed on publication in England and Wales, but only in Colorado, relying on the assumption that the relevant foreign law is the same as that applying in England. The defendant had agreed for the case to go ahead on that basis.
According to the judgment, Page admitted the posting had been made from his Google account and ‘advanced certain hypothetical explanations as to how an unidentified third party might have posted the allegations via his account but without his knowledge’. These included suggesting that a hacker had set out to damage Page by posting defamatory statements from his account.
Eady observed that such a plan would involve the third party successfully hacking into Page’s account and then making the 'very big’ assumption that the defamed party would go to the trouble and expense of identifying Page and pursuing him in a foreign jurisdiction. 'When one comes to assess the competing possibilities, it is fair to say that this somewhat obscure explanation defies probability,’ he said.
He concluded ‘the likelihood is, in the absence of any convincing explanation to the contrary, that the posting from Mr Page’s account was authored or authorised by him’.
The purpose of compensatory general damages was threefold, he said. The court must compensate for hurt feelings and distress, for injury to reputation, as well as bearing in mind the need to award a sum which will serve as an outward and visible sign of vindication.
Eady said he also needed to take into account the stress of having to pursue litigation in the US and in a foreign jurisdiction. ‘There is also some evidence of a decline in income at the relevant time which could be, at least in part, attributable to that publication.’
But Eady was ‘primarily concerned in [Bussey’s] case with the impact upon him personally and the need for clear vindication’.
Eady assessed the damages in Bussey’s case at £45,000. He assessed the award, conservatively, at £25,000 for the law firm. The claim for damages was capped at £50,000 ‘and that must therefore represent the total sum to be recovered by the claimants’.
He said: ‘I would grant an injunction if I thought it likely that Mr Page would republish the defamatory allegations or any similar words defamatory of the claimants, but I do not believe in the light of the evidence he has given that he will do so.’