The Cost of a “Facebook” Libel

An interesting case in this week’s news about a woman who accused her ex-husband of “trying to kill her” on Facebook, who lost both a High Court libel case in 2016 and more recently, an appeal against that verdict, has been left with a legal bill estimated to be £200,000.

The story of Nicola Stocker and her former husband, businessman Ronald Stocker, is a warning to all those who underestimate or ignore social media as a publishing platform and proceed to make defamatory postings.

In Mrs Stocker’s case, the Facebook exchange was between her and Deborah Bligh, Mr Stocker’s new partner, and took place in December 2012.

Mr Stocker, won the original libel case when Mr Justice Mitting ruled the comments painted him, wrongly, as a “dangerous and thoroughly disreputable man” and that the libel was “not trivial”. In that case, appropriate compensation was assessed at £5,000 – though Mr Stocker was only to clear his reputation and would not accept the damages award from his ex-wife.

Mrs Stocker appealed Mr Justice Mitting’s ruling, however, earlier this week, at the Court of Appeal, her case was (again) rejected by three senior judges.

One of those judges, Lady Justice Sharp commented on the “intentional” nature of the libellous act; that Mrs Stocker deliberately posted “without thinking about who else might see what she posted” and commented further on the fact that the parties had ended up in court as they were unable to resolve the matter through alternative dispute resolution, including mediation, which in this case, had proved to be unsuccessful.

The defamatory allegations about Mr Stocker were published to a group of 21 individuals who had authorised access to the Facebook page. They were also visible to 110 of Ms Bligh’s “friends” and to their Facebook “friends”. The court held that Mrs Stocker had no right to assume it was a private post and that although there were instances where Mr Stocker did “in temper” attempt to silence his ex-wife, he had not threatened to kill her and therefore her Facebook comments had a defamatory meaning.

The appeal judges agreed with this original ruling. They confirmed that Mrs Stocker was “the originator of the libel, she was aware that the particular Facebook platform concerned was a semi-public one and she deliberately posted on that platform without thinking about who else might see what she posted.”

This case is interesting in that it highlights a few key points about posting on social media:

  1. The “originator” of the libellous post is responsible (this is likely to include a company who would be vicariously liable for company posts published by a careless or disgruntled employee)
  2. The originator is deemed to be aware of the public nature, or in this case, the “semi-public” nature of a members’ group.
  3. The post was deliberate or intentional.
  4. The originator had designs to defame and damage the credibility of the subject of the post.
  5. The originator of the post did not consider or care about who else might see the comment.
  6. The subject of the post, Mr Stocker, a businessman had a reputation among his local community and in this case, among family, friends and “Facebook friends” (among the people who were privy to the defamatory post). The post had (according to both courts) “lowered the subject of the post in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public”.

Of course, Mrs Stocker would have had a defence if she had been able to prove that the allegations were in fact true. However, clearly this was not the case and in the absence of any other defences, Mrs Stocker’s comments were, in fact, defamatory.

It is easy to say in hindsight but given the unanimous Court of Appeal Verdict, Mrs Stocker would have been best advised not to take the matter any further after the initial ruling.

Who are we?

Gregory Abrams Davidson LLP is a firm of Solicitors with a well respected Media and Intellectual Property Practice. Based in Central London, we advise Business and Individual clients on matters ranging from Brand Protection and Intellectual Property to Reputation Management, including Defamation.

Jonathan Abrams, Solicitor and Attorney At Law in the USA and a Partner at the firm has an enviable track record in this area and manages this department.

If you have been defamed on social media or you are in need of any advice relating to Reputation Management or defamation (whether personal or relating to your business), or alternatively, if you have been accused of posting or making defamatory or libellous statements, don’t delay and contact us today on:

Jonathan Abrams, Partner

Tel: 020 8004 7016

Email: jabrams@gadllp.co.uk