U.K. Judge Makes History in Twitter Defamation Verdict

Former head of Indian cricket league ordered to pay New Zealand player for libeling him on Twitter.

Is the U.K. about to become the "Twibel" capital of the world?

On Monday, a British judge awarded $140,000 in libel damages to a New Zealand cricket player who claimed that he had been defamed in a 24-word Twitter message by the ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League. The verdict  the dangers of harmful speech on a social media platform that is enjoyed throughout the world.

Chris Cairns sued Lalit Modi, who on Jan. 10, 2010, tweeted, "Chris Cairns removed from the IPL auction list due to his past record in match fixing. This was done by the Governing Council today."

Having seen that tweet, a journalist from an online cricket publication responded with a request for confirmation.

Modi replied, "We have removed him from the list for alleged allegations [sic] as we have zero tolerance of this kind of stuff. The Governing Council has decided against keeping him on the list."

Investigating the record, Justice David Bean wrote in his decision on Monday that the situation was troubling. "It is obvious that an allegation that a professional cricketer is a match-fixer goes to the core attributes of his personality and, if true, entirely destroys his reputation for integrity,"wrote Justice Bean.

But perhaps most important is the way that Justice Bean examined the issue of damages from a libelous tweet, a subject that's been closely watched in other disputes, such as a case involving rocker Courtney Love that never made it to trial.

Justice Bean noted in his decision that the original tweet was seen by less than 100 of Modi's followers. The online cricket publication then reported the essence of the tweet, and it is estimated to have been read by somewhere between 450 and 1500 individuals.

"But although publication was limited, that does not mean that damages should be reduced to trivial amounts," writes Justice Bean.

He then quotes another decision made "long before the internet was thought of," a 1935 case, where it was said:

"It is precisely because the 'real' damage cannot be ascertained and established that the damages are at large. It is impossible to track the scandal, to know what quarters the poison may reach..."

Perhaps that's more true in the age of Twitter than ever.

Besides the $140,000 (or 90,000 pounds) awarded in damages, Modi was also ordered to pay $635,000 in legal costs. Reportedly, the judge says that the defendant can appeal the amount of damages, but not the question of liability. In the meantime, the U.K. suddenly becomes a place to watch for future Twitter defamation cases.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner