Oyston & Anor v Ragozzino [2015]

In Oyston & Anor v Ragozzino [2015] EWHC 3232 (QB) (09 November 2015) this matter came before His Honour Judge Stephen Davies sitting as a High Court Judge. There were three Claimants in the case. The First Claimant, Chairman of Blackpool Football Club Limited. The Second Claimant, his Father, has a shareholding in an intermediate company, the sole owner of the Football club and, the Football Club as the third Claimant.

The Defendant was an ardent supporter of the club and had been upset how the club had been run by the family and their company. His protests included demonstrating at matches and postings on the internet.

One of the Defendant’s postings on a football website within the Blackpool section went beyond what would be considered acceptable criticism of the running of the club and its finances. The postings contained extremely tasteless allegations of a sexual nature against both father and son and accusations of corruption and fraud.

The Claimants recognised genuine criticism voiced by Club supporters expressing their opinion as to the way the club was run and its finances but the Defendant’s postings crossed the line “between legitimate criticism, no matter how vigorously expressed, and making serious and untrue defamatory statements of the kind mentioned”.
The Defendant’s Defence and Request for Better Particulars of the 8th January 2015 required the Claimants to prove that he was the one posting the defamatory comments. Once provided, he would give a full defence that his statements had been justified as they were truthful. HH Judge Stephen Davies noted that he could no longer use this defence as:

“(1) On 19 May 2015 a procedural order was made by District Judge Moss, entering judgment for the claimants against Mr Ragozzino for an amount to be decided by the court because his Defence had been struck out due to his failure to file a directions questionnaire as previously ordered.

(2) On 13 July 2015, at a hearing before Mr Justice Jay of the claimants’ application for injunctive relief in separate proceedings, he consented to judgment being entered against him on the claim, with the determination of the amount of damages to be adjourned, and also submitted to an order restraining him from repeating the statements complained about.”

On the 19th June 2015 the District Judge gave directions for damages to be assessed at a hearing on the 22nd October 2015 with provision for the Claimants to file and serve their witness statements, which they produced in detail.

HH Judge Davies noted that the Defendant wanted to adjourn the assessment of damages to set aside the consent order but the Judge refused.

HH Judge Davies examined the relevant factors for assessment of damages, the nature and extent of the publication. He noted that the posts were most likely read by a number into the low thousands. The Second Claimant believed that the postings had “spread far and wide through the Blackpool and Fylde coast area” there had been jeers at football matches, that people believed the Defendant’s postings. His son, the First Claimant had not shared the same experiences as his father which did not surprise the Judge “because the allegations against Owen Oyston have a very specific factual focus, which will inevitably pique interest, whereas the allegations against him do not”.

HH Judge Davies assessed the impact upon each of the Claimants. With regard to the Second Claimant “he found It is plain that an allegation of this nature, so specific and so salacious, and to do not just with Owen Oyston’s private life but also connected to his position as owner of Blackpool FC, is bound to have had a very significant impact upon him. However, I must also bear in mind that Owen Oyston has already had had a long and bitter experience of this sort of thing by reason of his previous convictions”

With regard to the First Claimant who had been upset and humiliated by the Defendant’s postings, HH Judge Davies accepted this “ I do not seek to minimise the impact of being accused as a probable rapist, or as fraudulent and corrupt, or of being involved in some (unspecified) way with the allegations against Owen Oyston so far as they touched Blackpool FC, only to say that in my view they would have been, and were, easier for him to shrug off”.

The Third Claimant Company were accused of corruption and fraudulent behaviour and linked to its owner, the Second Claimant, with the assertions made against him. HH Judge Davies noted that the Company did not plead a case for special damages against the Defendant but for substantial general damages as its goodwill and reputation had been damaged.

HH Judge Davies noted the difficulty with the Company as to the assessment of any commercial damage to it from the postings. He observed that the Football Club was already suffering after relegation from the Premiership, from the Championship and the boycott campaigns and match-day protests. He was not satisfied that the First and Second Claimants had produced enough evidence to substantiate this.

HH Judge Davies considered the Defendant’s malicious conduct and his conduct of the proceedings. “It is well-established (see Gatley at §9.18 onwards) that damages may be aggravated by the conduct of the defendant both as regards the defamatory statements themselves, in particular if he was motivated by malice in making the assertions, and by his conduct of the proceedings. A claim for aggravated damages was pleaded in this case, relying on the fact that the assertions were published maliciously and on Mr Ragozzino’s behaviour after complaint was made, including his failure to apologise”.

However, “by the subsequent decision of the Court of Appeal in Eaton Mansions (Westminster) Ltd v Stinger [2013] EWCA Civ 1308, referred to in Duncan & Neil at [§25.07] – that aggravated damages may not be awarded in favour of a corporate claimant”.

HH Judge Davies was satisfied that the Defendant had been motivated by malice against the First and Second Claimants regarding his initial posts and how he conducted the case. He had been motivated by hatred for the First and Second Claimants, made the very serious and damaging allegations without any thought of them being true and refused to take responsibility for the posts or to apologise.
In considering the general reputation of the Second Claimant, HH Judge Davies observed that it was quite plain that the Second Claimant’s criminal convictions were relevant to this claim as both the allegations in respect of the defamation claim and his convictions were of a sexual nature. However, his conviction was over 20 years ago and otherwise he is a man of good character in the eyes of the law. Although the damages had to be reduced by reason of his bad reputation as to his sexual conduct he considered it would not be right in these circumstances.

With regard to the reputation of the First Claimant, the allegations were not of sexual nature but as to his conduct at the Football Club and the disputes with the campaigners. He was satisfied that the Defendant could not establish general bad character or anything related to the subject matter of the defamation to his sexual conduct, honesty and uprightness in his business affairs and disregarded them.

In his conclusions, HH Judge Davies considered all the allegations of sexual misconduct appalling and extremely serious with the fraud and corruption allegations made.
“I consider that the allegations against Owen Oyston achieved a wider publication and interest, and caused him greater distress, than did the allegations against Karl Oyston. However I also consider that his damages must be reduced because of his general bad reputation so far as his sexual conduct his concerned”.

Both Owen Oyston and Karl Oyston are entitled to aggravated damages by reference to Mr Ragozzino’s malice and conduct of the case.

The Company is entitled to substantial damages, but only modest damages.

The first claimant, Karl Oyston, is entitled to damages assessed in the sum of £20,000.

The second claimant, Owen Oyston, is entitled to damages assessed in the sum of £20,000.

The third claimant, Blackpool Football Club Limited, is entitled to damages assessed in the sum of £1,000.

All remaining matters will be addressed once this judgment has been handed down”.

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