Housing group wins UK's highest ever internet defamation payout

A housing company chief executive has won £100,000 from the owner of a competitor in the highest ever internet defamation payout in the UK.

Peter Walls, 55, the CEO of Gentoo Group (formerly Sunderland Housing Group), his company and several employees sued John Finn, the owner of Pallion Housing Ltd, and the company, after being repeatedly accused of a number of actions from corruption to sexual misconduct on an internet news website and its anonymous forum.

The High Court heard today that a settlement has been reached in which Finn and Pallion will make a payment to Walls to end the action against them.

Finn had denied all responsibility and that of his business, but changed his position on the eve of his scheduled appearance at the High Court and has agreed to pay compensation for his action. He has already paid £19,000 to other claimants, including the company, and will have to pay substantial costs, understood to run to £500,000.

Peter Walls said: ‘No amount of money can compensate my family for the distress these outrageous and false statements have caused us. What was particularly frightening was the fact that we didn’t know who has doing this or why.

‘There is no doubt that the internet can be a fantastic tool for good but we urgently need legal change to enable victims of internet abuse to have a quicker and more effective route to justice.”

The website, www.dadsplace.co.uk, comprised a news section and an anonymous forum where visitors could post comments.The site was taken down by its hosting Internet Service Providers (ISPs) on several occasions, but the owners of the site kept up their attack by simply getting another ISP to host the defamatory material.

Olswang partner, Dan Tench, who represented the Group, described the case as “one of the most concerted defamation campaigns any organisation has faced”.

He added: “Even when asked to desist, the site continued to add fresh claims on an almost daily basis, with the authors attempting to hide behind anonymity in order to avoid any responsibility for their actions. What they overlooked is that their online activity left a trail that could be traced, revealing their identities.

‘We have had to use unusual and robust legal tactics to stop the perpetrators. Our clients and we hope no one and no organisation has to experience such a deeply unpleasant campaign of defamatory attacks again.”

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