UK man wins record Internet libel damages

LONDON (Reuters) - A British property executive won record Internet libel damages from a court on Thursday, in one of the country’s first cases stemming from online harassment by a business rival.

British property executive Peter Walls poses for photographs outside of the High Court in London April 3, 2008. Walls, 55, of Sunderland in northern England, won record Internet libel damages from a court on Thursday, in one of the country's first cases stemming from online harassment by a business rival. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Peter Walls, 55, of Sunderland in northern England, told Reuters the two-year hate campaign had been a nightmare and called for the law to be changed to allow swifter justice in such cases.

Walls, his family and 30 staff members were subjected to “vicious and unpleasant anonymous, defamatory attacks”, High Court judge David Eady was told.

As a result, the social housing company chief executive accepted a record 100,000 pounds ($198,700) in damages on Thursday.

Walls’ company, Gentoo Group Ltd, and several other unnamed people had already accepted almost 20,000 pounds in damages, the court was told.

“It has been a nightmare,” Walls, a former local council executive, told Reuters afterwards.

“It has not just been a single time, it has been day after day and that has been very difficult to live with.

“It is terribly intimidating and frightening and I think the people that did this knew that.”

Walls said his family had struggled to cope.

His house -- now fitted with police alarms -- had repeatedly been attacked, while his partner, Caroline, 40, and children still feared for their safety.

The court heard the two-year campaign started in April 2004 when a competitor to Walls, prominent businessman John Finn -- through his company Pallion Housing Ltd -- created a site called “Dad’s Place”.

Other people then used the now-defunct site, its anonymous forums and associated newsletters to publish various false allegations, the court was told.

These included that Walls was a pedophile, corrupt, hired hitmen and that he sexually harassed and bullied staff. The movements of Walls and his family were also documented daily.

The court heard it then became a talking point throughout the local area, after Finn, a housing landlord, took extensive measures to publicize it.

Walls said he thought it was started to blackmail him to pay more for homes that Finn was selling.

He had sued Finn, who originally denied responsibility, for libel. He was found guilty of publishing the material after a trial last year.

Walls called for an overhaul to the law, to enable future victims to have a “quicker and more effective route to justice”.

Hugh Tomlinson, for Walls and his company, said the material published was “seriously defamatory, abusive and scurrilous”.

“From behind their cloak of anonymity, Dad’s Place used their publications and in particular the Web site to conduct a malicious, unpleasant and relentless campaign of libel and harassment,” he told the court.

Media lawyer Dan Tench, a partner at Olswang, the firm that represented Walls and his company, said it was a British record Internet libel payout.

A spokeswoman for Finn said he was unavailable for comment.

Editing by Stephen Addison and Paul Casciato