Legacy of libel damages

I write with reference to the article by Lawrence Abramson on the recent decision of the Court of Appeal to allow directions on personal injury damages to assist libel juries (The Lawyer 16 January 'Damages made good').

Mr Abramson referred to the David Ashby libel case as being the first libel action since the Court of Appeal decision in John v MGM.

In fact that is not entirely accurate. There were three libel actions taking place in the High Court at that time, the David Ashby case, the Peter Bottomley case and a case being brought against the BBC by two police officers.

In the BBC case (with which I was involved), counsel for the plaintiffs (it is believed for the first time) gave the jury some brackets for damages himself, which the judge endorsed.

The judge went on to direct the jury: "It is my duty to bring to your attention the range of awards for damages which have been given in English and Welsh courts for damages to compensate for physical injury as opposed to injury to reputation. I do so in summary form; an award up to £125,000 general damages will be given to a man who is paralysed in all four limbs by way of compensation for the pain and suffering and loss of amenities of life. That is the top sort of award for that sort of compensation.

"Should somebody be unfortunate enough to lose an arm at the shoulder – £52,000; loss of one leg below the knee – £45,000 maximum; total loss of an eye – £25,000; simple fracture of the jaw – £5,000 maximum; broken nose – £800. I hope that this is a fair range of any of the troubles that people have. Do not of course think, those awards include, for example, nursing care or loss of wages or anything like that. They are awards for pain and suffering and for loss of amenities of life."

Similar directions were given in the Peter Bottomley action where the judge referred to the levels of award in personal injury cases for severe brain damage (£125,000) loss of a limb (£52,000) and loss of sight (£90,000) while pointing out that these were awards for the most serious injuries which caused permanent damage, that the jury should be very careful before awarding over £125,000, and that there "never is and never can be a precise parallel" between damages for personal injury and damages for libel.

It is too early to predict whether the John decision will have a significant impact on the level of damages awarded. Some comfort can possibly be derived from the two cases decided to date where more responsible awards appear to have been made.

Gillian Philips

BBC litigation department.