Cassidy v Daily Mirror Newspapers Ltd [1929] 2 KB 331

Key point

  • Defamation may happen indirectly and unknowingly –  liability for libel does not depend on the intention of the defamer

Facts

  • The claimant was the legal wife of an infamous race-horse owner and former General of the Mexican Army
  • While seperated, her husband occasionally stayed at her flat and came into contact with her social circles
  • The defendant newspaper published an article containing a photo of her husband with another woman, asserting that they were engaged (as per a statement made by the claimant’s husband when the photo was taken)
  • The claimant brought an action in defamation, arguing that the article had the effect of damaging her reputation, as the statement indirectly implied to those who read it that she was an immoral woman who cohabited with her supposed husband out of marriage (seeing as he was apparently single)
  • The defendants argued that, as they did not know the circumstances which caused the circles of the claimant to infer the defamatory meaning, they could not be held liable for them either

Held (Court of Appeal)

  • In favor of the claimant, that the article could make the reasonably minded person believe that the claimant’s moral quality was questionable and that it did not matter if the defendant did not intend to hit the claimant

Scrutton LJ

  • ‘a man is liable for the reasonable inferences to be drawn from the words he used, whether he foresaw them or not.’: [339]
  • He gives the example of saying that someone has a hereditary drinking problem – which inadvertently defames that person’s parents: [338]
  • ‘the words published were capable of the meaning “Corrigan is a single man,”’, and those who read the words, and knew the claimant, could then reasonably  draw the inference that the claimant (his supposed wife) was of dubious moral character: [340]
  • ‘It is not necessary that all the world should understand the libel; it is sufficient if those who know the plaintiff can make out that he is the person meant.’: [341]

Russell LJ

  • ‘Liability for libel does not depend on the intention of the defamor; but on the fact of defamation.’: [354]
  • The defendants ‘innocent’ statement, was in fact, false, and greater care should have been taken in asserting its truthfulness – ‘if they had not made a false statement they would not now be suffering in damages. They are paying a price for their methods of business’: [354]

Greer LJ (Dissenting)

  • An innocent statement should only be turned into defamation by outside factors, if those factors are known to the publisher – else he would be liable for doing something for which he ‘could have no reason to suppose would injure anybody’ : [347]
  • Greer LJ gives an example – if A were to assert B to be an ‘ignoramus’, and unknown to A, B  was educated by C, should C then be able to turn around and hold A liable for defamation?: [348]
  • It seems ‘wholly unreasonable’ to hold words to a different meaning, because ‘some unduly suspicious person drew an inference from the fact [he] stated’: [350]

Commentary

  • For commentators, the judgement raised concerns about its harsh implications for publishers and its apparent imposition of a duty to conclusively verify the authenticity of every single published item – ‘such a principle as this case establishes would make the act of publishing any article so perilous as to require the most exhaustive verification’ and that ‘the Court of Appeal in this instance went further than authority, principle or public policy demand’: A. W. H., Jr. (1929). Libel and Slander: Hidden Defamatory Meaning: Elements of Intent and Negligence. California Law Review, 17(6), 684–689
  • It was then suggested that ‘The defendant should be permitted to show that he acted as a careful and prudent person in publishing that which he had no reason to believe was defamatory. The determining factor in such cases set by law should be only the standard of due care.’: Ibid. CLR
  • These public policy suggestions were picked up in section 2 of the Defamation Act 1996, which today provides a defence in cases of ‘unintentional defamation’ – the defendant has to prove that he had taken reasonable care not to defame the plaintiff and must take steps  to clear the plaintiff’s reputation by publishing a correction and an apology