How to sue in respect of abusive comments on the Internet
25 March 2015
The Bussey Law Firm PC & Anor v Page  EWHC 563 (QB) – read judgment
The facts of this case are simple. A defamatory comment was posted on the claimant’s Google maps directional page, implying that he was a “loser” as a lawyer and that his firm lost “80%” of cases brought to them. The defendant claimed that someone must have hacked in to his own Google account to put up the post.
There were jurisdictional complications in that the firm is situated in Colarado but these need not concern us here as Sir David Eady, sitting as a High Court judge, allowed the trial to go ahead in England. The real question was why any third party would have gone to the trouble of hacking into the defendant’s Google account in order to post the offending review; if the objective were merely to hide the hacker’s identity from the claimants, there would be the simpler option of setting up an anonymous Google account. This would in itself render the would-be publisher untraceable, and especially if it were done from a public computer. Equally, if such a hacker nevertheless wished to use someone else’s account, as Sir David said,
it is not easy to see why he would choose that of the Defendant. He is based in England and it would make more sense, surely, to choose someone in or near Colorado Springs, where the Claimants practise. This would present a rather more credible scenario, if the account were traced, since their clients or potential clients are more likely to be found within easy reach.
The defendant put forward one scenario which the judge found somewhat difficult to swallow: that he must himself have been the hacker’s real target. The theory is that he or she might have been seeking retribution for some decision or action taken by the Defendant in his capacity as moderator of “sub-reddits” on the http://www.reddit.com website.
In other words, this could provide an explanation why the third party wanted Mr Page to take the blame for the attack on the Claimants. This plan would still, of course, involve the third party successfully hacking into Mr Page’s account in the first place and then making the (very big) assumption that the target (i.e. the Claimants) would actually go to the trouble and expense of identifying Mr Page and thereafter of 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.
One possibility is that the defendant obtained payment for posting third party reviews via another website, the Fiver.com site. Why he should himself choose to attack the claimants was also unclear, but the most likely explanation appeared to the judge as “a purely financial one”.
An action in defamation however is not one where it is required of the court to establish motive, so once he had decided liability Sir David was able to proceed to determine damages. The purpose of compensatory general damages is threefold. The court must compensate
- for hurt feelings and distress, and
- 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.
There was no doubt that the allegation caused Mr Bussey “considerable anxiety and distress, as it reflected upon his personal integrity and his professional competence throughout the period of ready access.”
The judge assessed the damages in this case at £45,000 for Mr Bussey personally, and for the first claimant, his firm, he awarded the sum of £25,000, although the total claim was capped at £50,000.
The widespread problem of “trolling” on the internet cannot be solved by libel law alone, and no finding of individual ill-will was made in respect of this particular defendant. But it is an interesting case of a defamed individual being able to claim redress even though the precise identity of his defamer cannot be established beyond doubt.
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