Mark Hales, who was judged to have been at fault for an incident which saw the engine of ex-Formula One driver David Piper’s rare Porsche 917 explode, is now facing a bill of around £120,000.
According to Hales, the case, heard at the High Court, came down to his word against Piper’s.
He claimed there had been an agreement – common for motor journalists in such situations – between the pair that he was not liable for potential damages. Piper said no such deal was made.
Judge Simon Brown QC ruled in favour of Piper, describing the journalist as “a most unreliable witness whose evidence was creative, inconsistent, self-motivated and incredible”.
He also judged that the 2009 incident came down to “driver error”, finding Hales had over-revved the engine.
In addition to being sued by former professional Piper for nearly £50,000 in damages, Hales has also been asked to pay his £63,000 legal fees – plus VAT.
Hales believes the decision has the potential to change the face of motoring journalism, with individual writers potentially facing “personal ruin”.
“It affects any motor journalist invited to drive someone else’s car. If that means they are liable to lose their house, they are going to have to say no or formulate a long document,” he told Press Gazette.
Hales did admit that things might have been easier for him if he was a staffer rather than a freelance – he was commissioned by Octane magazine for this particular story.
Richard Aucock, chairman of the Guild of Motoring Writers, described the judgement as “alarming for motor journalists”, and said several members had been in touch to express their concern.
“We’re not quite sure what it will mean,” he said. “You suspect it will mean more due diligence and may require more paperwork and disclaimers.”
He explained that senior motor journalists, who are often freelances, regularly test drive cars and have previously depended on “gentlemen’s agreements” to avoid liability, but said these arrangements are now “at risk”.
Former professional Piper, 82, agreed, telling Press Gazette: “I think it will make a difference. It will make people think twice about lending their cars.”
He claimed that Hales had “treated him very badly” by refusing to pay more than his insurance would cover and that it would have been wrong to have “brushed this under the carpet”.
He said: “After being treated like this by a journalist I certainly would think very carefully about ever having anything to do with a journalist again.”