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Newstead v London Express Newspaper Ltd [1940] 1 KB 377

Mistaken identity in a case of libel

Facts

A newspaper published details of a bigamy trial and referred to the accused as “Harold Newstead, thirty-year-old Camberwell man.” Another man by the name of Harold Newstead, also from Camberwell and aged around thirty, brought an action in libel against the newspaper. He claimed that the article had been misunderstood as referring to him.

Issue

The defendant newspaper admitted publication of the account but denied that they were intended or understood to refer to the plaintiff or that they were defamatory of him. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants were under a duty to take reasonable care to give a precise and detailed description of the correct Harold Newstead, denoting him exclusively, and to ensure that the words published were not capable of referring to any other person. They were in breach of this duty. The key question was whether reasonable persons would understand the words complained of to refer to the plaintiff.

Held

The Court of Appeal noted that it is established law that liability for libel does not depend on the intention of the defamer; but on the fact of the defamation. Accordingly, in a case such as this it may be right to direct the jury that a reasonable man, and, in particular, a newspaper publisher, must be aware of the possibility of individuals with the same name and must assume that the words published will be read by a reasonable man with reasonable care. The Court held that the evidence justified a finding by the jury that a reasonable man may have understood the words complained of to refer to the plaintiff. The fact that the words were true of another person was not a valid defence against a claim of libel.


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