Leading personal injury law firm Bond Turner is suing a well-known insurance trade magazine for defamation over an article that accused it of not dealing honestly with clients.
Mrs Justice Tipples found that the meaning of the article in Insurance Times was defamatory of the law firm and also credit hire organisation Direct Accident Management (DAM).
Both are part of AIM-listed business Anexo Group.
Tipples J’s judgment related only to the meaning of the articles, a standard preliminary step taken in libel cases.
She stressed that the court was not, at this stage, adjudicating on any other issue and the publication has not yet been required to file a defence.
Insurance Times published two articles which are the subject of the claim. The first, in December 2019, was entitled ‘Credit hire sharks circle as market reacts to excessive costs’.
This reported on a case in which Aviva successfully defended a claim where DAM sought to charge £400,000 in credit hire costs for a replacement vehicle used for nearly three years while liability was in dispute.
The article asked whether excessive credit hire costs were a problem and labelled DAM as an outlier and anomaly of poor practice.
The headline of the follow-up article, published in January 2020, was ‘Rogue agent aggravates industry with trumped-up credit hire costs’ and considered among other things the transparency of DAM’s referral of cases to Bond Turner.
The article put the concerns in the wider context of the whiplash reforms and fears that the low damages now available for personal injury would encourage a focus on credit hire charges instead.
It quoted a defendant lawyer from Plexus Law saying: “Bond Turner are perhaps one of the most prolific firms that we come across, but that’s nothing to say that they are doing anything wrong or anything against the rules.”
Tipples J found that the first article meant DAM was an example of a credit hire organisation which was “particularly bad when it comes to charging excessive credit hire costs”.
The second article, meanwhile, alleged that DAM was guilty of fraud in relation to the credit hire costs it charged.
The judge held it meant there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that there is a conflict of interest between DAM and Bond Turner”, and possible breaches of Solicitors Regulation Authority rules, in relation to direct referrals or introductions of customers by DAM to Bond Turner.
The ordinary reasonable reader would understand that Bond Turner’s conduct was “on a par with DAM”, and that there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect that both DAM and Bond Turner do not act honestly and transparently towards their customers in respect of client introductions and referrals to and from each other.
Tipples J said these meanings were defamatory of DAM and Bond Turner at common law and she rejected the publication’s argument that key aspects of the articles – such as describing the credit hire charges as “exaggerated and grossly excessive” – were opinion rather than fact.
She said: “The reader understands that the extortionate charges are the result of fraud by DAM.”