26 January 2021

Snatching defeat from the jaws of PR victory: A cautionary tale about libel risks


A recent press release hitting back over threatened legal action against a garden centre business has backfired after it sparked a libel dispute with the Environment Agency and its legal advisor.

What happened?

Rather than avoiding court proceedings following a prosecution against them being dropped, the Defendants found themselves in court as a result of publishing a press release about the events.

It is understandable that businesses or individuals, feeling vindicated from such a triumph, may be keen to publish information and communications to the public to restore their image and share their side of the story. Indeed, they may feel justified in doing so.

However, a recent High Court decision (1) provides a stark warning of the potential dangers and emphasises the importance of seeking appropriate legal advice in order to avoid inadvertently sparking further legal proceedings.

Facts

The Claimant was a solicitor for the Environment Agency. The Defendants were a company that operates garden centres and its Director. In 2018, the Environment Agency prosecuted the Director as the landlord and two others as the previous tenants for environmental offences in relation to waste on a piece of land. The Claimant was the lawyer responsible for bringing the prosecution for the Environment Agency. The Environment Agency dropped the case before trial, after around 9 months of preparations.

The Defendants subsequently posted a press release on the company website, criticising the Environment Agency and specifically the Claimant’s handling of the case, including accusing the Claimant of wasting ‘many of thousands of pounds of government money’. The press release also contained allegations about the Environment Agency’s communications and involvement with the tenants prior to the prosecution. The Defendants sent the press release to local media outlets, Councillors and the local MP.

As a result of the press release, the Claimant brought a claim for libel and harassment against the Defendants.

The decision

The court found at a recent preliminary hearing that the content of the press release was indeed defamatory of the Claimant, and the claim will proceed.

The Defendants will now have two options: to defend against the claim in court or to attempt to reach a settlement with the Claimant before any final hearing. Both of these will likely incur significant further costs. This, along with possible further negative publicity and reputational damage, is clearly something which the business may well have preferred to avoid.

Why is this important?

There are two key points that are important to remember:

1. Liability for a defamation claim can arise from a press release

Businesses, individuals, and the PR companies advising them should take care of the precise wording of public statements. They should also ensure that any claims made in statements are backed by evidence. This will help to protect businesses from defamation claims, which may arise from either unintended or unsubstantiated allegations contained in press releases.

2. Before issuing communications on contentious topics, businesses may want to check that they do not inadvertently stray into legal problems

Prevention is better than the cure. Taking legal advice before issuing any controversial statements can prevent issues from arising later down the line and can save businesses, individuals and the PR companies advising them from potential conflict.

If you would like any further information or advice in relation to the above, please get in touch with our media and reputation team.

Footnotes

(1) Dylan Sadler v (1) Anthony Joyner and (2) Joyner Plants Ltd [2020] EWHC 3325 (QB)

Authors

Category: Article