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Pullman v W. Hill & Co Ltd [1891] 1 QB 524


Publication of defamatory letter where opened by clerk in ordinary course of business

Facts

The plaintiffs were two members of a partnership firm. They owned property in Borough Road, London which they had contracted to sell. In the meantime, they let a hoarding which was erected on the property, to the defendant. A dispute arose between the defendant and the purchaser of the Borough Road property regarding the hoarding. The defendant wrote a letter addressed to the partnership alleging that the partnership had no right to let the hoarding due to the sale of the land.

Issue

The plaintiffs alleged that the letter written to them by the defendant was defamatory. The letter was dictated by the managing director of the defendants to a clerk, who wrote them out in a type-writing machine. The letter was then copied by an office-boy in a copying-press. Upon reaching its destination, it was read by two other clerks. The key issue was whether these facts amounted to a “publication” of the letter for the purposes of libel. The plaintiffs contended that there was a publication to the respective clerks in each office.

Held

The Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the trial judge and held that the letter must be taken to have been published both to the plaintiffs’ clerks and the defendants’ clerks and that on neither occasion was the publication privileged. Lord Esher held that there is a “publication” of a letter wherever the writer of the letter shows it to any person other than the person to whom it is written. If some individual wishes not to publish a letter, where the letter contains defamatory matter, he must either keep it to himself or send it himself straight to the person to whom it is written.

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