Twitter users beware. A High Court ruling has established that the cost of a tweet can far exceed its author's expectations.
In the first decision of its kind in England, international cricketer and former New Zealand captain Chris Cairns has won a libel claim against former Indian Premier League (IPL) chairman Lalit Modi for defamatory tweets.
The damages awarded for the 24-word publication on Twitter amounts to an impressive £3,750 per word.
In January 2010, Mr Modi tweeted that Mr Cairns had been removed from the IPL auction list (of players eligible and available to play in the league) 'due to his past record of match fixing'. The tweet was picked up by a cricket commentary website, and Mr Modhi repeated his claims to the site when questioned.
Just not cricket
The judge in the case, Mr Justice Bean, found that Mr Modi 'singularly failed to provide any reliable evidence that Mr Cairns was involved in match fixing'.
In defamation claims, the burden of proof is effectively reversed, and the defendant is required to prove the truth of his statement. However, the judge found that even using a normal balance of probabilities test he would have found in favour of Mr Cairns.
The allegation was so damaging to Mr Cairns that the judge felt there was no question that it was defamatory. Even though few people in the UK will have seen Mr Modi's statements, Mr Justice Bean noted that in the online world 'the poison tends to spread far more rapidly'.
Know when to let it drop
An important consideration for future cases will be the importance the judge placed on the conduct of the defence.
The decision of Mr Modi's defence to vigorously maintain its contention that his tweets were true was singled out for criticism. Ronald Thwaites QC, representing Mr Modi, used the words 'liar', 'lie' and 'lies' 24 times in his closing speech, and compared Mr Cairns' 'diabolical scheme' to the abuse of children in an orphanage. Unsurprisingly, the judge found that this strategy was particularly offensive to Mr Cairns, and awarded a 20% increase in his damages accordingly.
The total damages awarded to Mr Cairns was £90,000, and although Mr Modi has stated his intention to appeal the decision, he currently faces a liability for the costs of each side of around £1m in addition to the damages.
All out for 24 words
This judgment contains no new law, but it does establish an important precedent when it comes to libel through social media.
It is clear that defamatory statements made on Twitter and similar media may be treated as seriously, if not more so, than those published in more traditional ways - not least because of their potentially limitless reach.
Twitter represents a fantastic opportunity to communicate thoughts and opinions to a potentially enormous audience far beyond that previously available, but it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security.
As Lalit Modi has learned to his considerable cost, it is all too easy to post a comment to Twitter that would never make it into a press release or newspaper, and yet such a comment might reach far more people.
It may take many more judgments of this kind before Twitter users learn to think before they tweet.