A War of Words

Irish people are noted for their banter and its fair to say that most of us have given (and taken) our fair share of abuse whether over a tea break or down in our local public house. Being a thick skinned bunch, we normally think nothing of it. Occasionally, however, something is said that is damaging either personally or professionally.
Defamation is the response of the law to two competing interests, namely, the right to free speech on one side and the right of a person to preserve their reputation from unjust attack on the other. To defame someone is essentially to injure that person’s good name.
The law in Ireland changed substantially recently with the introduction of the Defamation Act 2009. One of the largest changes is the removal of the distinction between spoken and written statements.
Earlier this month Terry Casey, a Lecturer in Marketing at GMIT received substantial damages in settlement arising out of an e-mail attachment circulated in January 2005.  This was a historic case as apparently it is the first successful one arising out of e-mail defamation.   Unfortunately we can all be too casual when it comes to sending e-mails.  Once an e-mail is sent it cannot be withdrawn, it can be circulated very easily and could be highly defamatory.
E-mail messages pose serious commercial and legal issues for all organisations and employees including charities or even sports clubs.  Anyone can be found liable in particular the employer is liable for an employee’s information by a concept known as vicarious liability.
Employees should always bear in mind that while e-mails and post on line can be sent at the click of a mouse, the consequences can be significant.   Companies and organisations should always have an e-mail policy including sanctions on any employee that abuses an e-mail policy. Any policy should set out what employees can and cannot do when using company e-mail and internet facilities.
If you are sending an e-mail about another person and are worried that it could be defamatory it is always useful to consider how a third party – or a Judge – would consider it if they read your e-mail.  If you are still concerned then don’t sent the e-mail.
The most common form of defamation action taken is that a person’s reputation has been adversely affected by the media.  The recent changes in legislation however gives the media an opportunity to remedy the losses and help restore a person’s reputation.  Therefore a Solicitor should be consulted at an early stage by either.
One word of caution however is that defamation cases can be costly and as such our experience is that they are often best dealt with diplomacy, using the courts as a last resort.  To twist an old proverb:  sticks and stones may break your bones…….. but words may end up costing you!