Be warned - you can be held liable for the defamatory comments of another!

21 February 2019

In the recent High Court judgment of Monir v Wood [2018], the Court held the Defendant liable for a defamatory tweet, even though he did not post or have knowledge of the tweet at the time. The Defendant was also held liable for failing to remove the defamatory material once it was brought to his attention.

Facts of the case

Mr Wood was the Chairman of the Bristol UKIP branch. Mr Wood delegated responsibility for operating the branch’s Twitter and Facebook accounts to Mr Langley and gave clear instructions not to post anything on social media that was offensive, inappropriate, libellous, racist, xenophobic or homophobic. He also instructed Mr Langley to seek his prior approval before posting any content online, but this was never observed in practice.

On 4 May 2015, Mr Langley tweeted a photograph with the text:

Sarah Champion labour candidate for Rotherham stood with 2 suspended child grooming taxi drivers DO NOT VOTE LABOUR”

(the “Tweet”).

One of the men pictured was the Claimant, Mr Monir, who was neither a taxi driver nor a pedophile. Therefore, the allegation was entirely false and seriously defamatory of him.

Mr Monir was awarded damages of £40,000. However, had the defamatory statement and photograph been published in a national newspaper then it probably would have justified an award of £250,000. In fact, publication and republication was in this instance relatively limited.

How can you be held responsible for someone else’s actions?

Mr Monir sued Mr Wood for defamation. He took the decision not to pursue the claim against Mr Langley as the prospects of recovering damages against Mr Langley was limited.

The Court held that Mr Wood was liable for the actions of Mr Langley on two grounds:

1. Agency

Mr Langley was held to be acting as the agent of Mr Wood on the basis that he posted the Tweet in the course of, and for the purpose of, executing the task that had been delegated to him. Mr Wood retained ultimate control of the account: his email was registered to the account; he could reclaim sole control of the account by resetting his password or through his authority as Chairman and he chose not to enforce the requirement for Mr Langley to get his prior approval. Further, Mr Wood could not escape liability because Mr Langley acted against his instructions.

2. Subsequent Ratification

Mr Monir made a complaint to Mr Wood on or around 8 May 2015. After this date, Mr Wood was also held liable for authorising the continued publication of the Tweet on the basis that he would have been aware that the Tweet was not taken down until 1 June 2015, after Mr Monir had made a complaint to the Police.

Comment

This case provides a useful and up-to-date analysis of the law of defamation and explores how someone can be held liable for the actions of another. It will be of interest to any organisation who sets up social media accounts but then delegates responsibility for the same to individuals (e.g. employees or otherwise). 

The key message to take away from this judgment is that care needs to be taken in establishing a social media policy (which needs to be vigorously upheld), to monitor social media output and investigate, and deal with, any complaints promptly and seriously.

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