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Social Media – why you still need to be careful what you tweet…

28/02/2013

Mark Jackson

logoThe case of Cruddas -v- Adams serves as an important reminder that defamatory comments made on social media may lead to significant awards of damages.

It is particularly relevant in showing that the amount of damages may be increased considerably when comments are made repeatedly over a prolonged period of time.

On 25 March 2012, the Sunday Times published an article which alleged that Peter Cruddas (at the time Treasurer of the Conservative Party), had, during an undercover meeting, corruptly offered for sale via donations to the Conservative Party, the opportunity to influence Government policy; allegations which were repeated by the Independent on 9 June 2012. Mark Adams (a lobbyist) repeated these allegations and made other inaccurate comments in connection with the issue online through his blogs and on Twitter.

Over the course of several months, Mr Adams repeatedly called for the arrest of Mr Cruddas, and taunted Mr Cruddas for his failure to commence a libel action against him (which he finally did). The comments were made via 12 tweets (Mr Adams had over 700 followers) and in 9 blog posts.

During the course of the proceedings, the Police confirmed that there was no evidence of any criminal conduct on the part of Mr Cruddas, and a full retraction and apology from the Independent followed. A libel claim against the Sunday Times is due to commence in June 2013. After being shown a transcript of the meeting that took place between Mr Cruddas and the Sunday Times journalist, Mr Adams did not continue defending the libel action and ultimately default judgement was entered against him. However, when it came to assessment of damages, he chose not to issue any apology, nor did he withdraw all of the statements that he had made. The Court awarded Mr Cruddas £45,000 in damages, along with costs.

This case is one of only a few which deal with defamatory comments involving Twitter and other social media. Although in this instance the conduct of Mr Adams was so reckless as to be characterised as “puerile”, it shows that care should be taken when making statements which have not been verified.

The purpose of damages in cases of defamation is to compensate the affected party rather than penalise the defendant. Therefore, where a claimant has already achieved some level of vindication, this can have a direct effect on the amount awarded. Here, however, although the Court recognised that there were external mitigating factors, such as the Independent’s retraction, it said their effect was modest because of Mr Adams’ refusal to acknowledge that the claims he had made were false.

Particular weight was given to the fact that Mr Adams had continued the comments over a prolonged period and, despite receiving confirmation of Mr Cruddas’ innocence, had not removed all of the offending posts. The intensity with which Mr Adams conducted his campaign was seen by the Judge as going to the “core of Mr Cruddas’ professional reputation and integrity”.

Set against that, the fact that Mr Adams was an individual (with limited means), and that many people following the events were likely to have concluded that Mr Cruddas was innocent, were both factors which went towards limiting the amount of damages awarded. Nevertheless, along with the case of Cairns v Modi, this case is an example of the court taking the defendant’s conduct as a key factor in increasing the damages that would have otherwise been awarded.

This case is a reminder to those who tweet and blog to take care before making claims that have not been verified: always check your facts before you tweet!

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