In the first English libel case involving Twitter, the Court of Appeal upheld a damages award of £90,000 despite the limited number of people who saw the offending tweet, owing to the seriousness of the allegation and the impact it had on the claimant and his professional career.
Mr Cairns, an international cricketer who played for New Zealand on many occasions, sued Mr Modi, a former Chairman of the Indian Premier League (IPL), for posting a tweet which said that Mr Cairns had been removed from the IPL because of match-fixing. The tweet was seen by approximately 65 people, but it was also picked up by the cricket website, Cricinfo, which repeated the allegation (this was seen by approximately 1,000 people). Mr Cairns settled his claim against Cricinfo, and received £7,000 in damages and approximately £8,000 in costs.
At the trial, Mr Modi argued that the allegations were justified (ie true). The trial judge found in favour of Mr Cairns. In reaching his decision on damages, Mr Justice Bean took a slightly unusual approach by using a starting figure of £75,000, and increasing it by 20% to reflect the aggressive way in which Mr Modi’s counsel pursued the justification defence at trial (presumably on instructions from Mr Modi). Mr Modi appealed the size of the damages awarded against him and the approach used by the judge in assessing damages.
Court of Appeal decision
While the court accepted that there had been limited publication of the tweet, it noted that a defamatory allegation posted on a social media website like Twitter has the capacity to “go viral, more widely and quickly than ever before”. The Court confirmed that this percolation phenomenon is a legitimate factor to take into account when assessing damages. The trial had attracted a significant amount of media attention, during which Mr Cairn’s reputation was repeatedly attacked, so the damages award needed to reflect the additional distress caused by this.
The court also rejected Mr Modi’s argument that as a general principle damages should be lower where the trial is heard by a judge alone because the claimant is given some kind of vindication from a reasoned judgment. The court pointed out that members of the public are much more likely to be interested in the headline result and how much was awarded than reading a judgment.
The Court of Appeal stated the general principle that libel damages are intended to compensate the victim rather than punish the defendant. However, in certain circumstances, it may be appropriate to compensate the claimant for additional hurt to his feelings or injury to his reputation which have been caused by the defendant’s conduct, in addition to the damage caused by the publication itself (this is known as aggravated damages). Although most damages are awarded as a single sum, the judge was entitled to quantify the award in the way he did.
This appeal only concerned the level of damages awarded but it serves as a useful reminder that people who post defamatory statements on Twitter can be liable for defamation and substantial damages may be awarded.
The size of a damages award is often very important in a libel case: it not only compensates the claimant, but it can also help restore the claimant’s reputation in the eyes of the public if the award is perceived to be significant. Although it is sometimes difficult to predict the level of damages a claimant might be awarded, libel damages are generally subject to a ceiling figure, which the Court of Appeal confirmed is currently around £275,000.