In Suttle v Walker  EWHC 396 QB Mr Justice Nicklin ordered Samantha Walker to pay care home manager Kim Suttle £55,685.06 in libel and harassment damages after instigating a hate campaign against her based on false allegations that she had abused her dog.
The Claimant Ms Suttle was walking one of her dogs on 24 March 2018 when she was confronted by a stranger, later identified as the Defendant Samantha Walker. Ms Walker, who videoed the confrontation on her mobile telephone, accused Ms Suttle of beating her dog. Ms Walker, a passionate animal lover who donates to animal welfare charity, strenuously denied striking her dog or any cruelty (the Judge noted that the video clips did not identify any animal cruelty).
Later that day the video clips appeared on a Facebook “vigilante” group titled “Justice for Animals Brutally Abused UK”. The videos subsequently appeared on a YouTube channel titled "Kim Suttle dog abuser". Ms Walker ran the Facebook group anonymously, but was unmasked in June 2018 when Brett Wilson LLP, acting for Ms Suttle, obtained a Norwich Pharmacal Order against Facebook Ireland Limited. Disclosure from Facebook included details of Ms Walker’s personal profile page, from which Ms Suttle was able to identify Ms Walker as the individual who had confronted her.
When posting the videos on the group, Ms Walker accused Ms Suttle of animal cruelty in the accompanying text. She encouraged individuals to share the videos and to “name and shame” the claimant. The video was viewed at least 132,000 times within 24 hours with Ms Suttle being quickly identified along with her place of work.
The videos attracted hundreds of comments, many of which were deeply offensive and a number of which advocated violence against Ms Suttle. These included: “should have slapped the bitch”, “sorry shooting is too good for her”, “I would have given her a bloody kicking as well”, “someone must know this bitch”, “find her and kick seven bails of shit out of the cunt”, “get that poor dog well away from barbaric bastard bitch”.
The videos were temporarily removed from Facebook on the advice of the police, but subsequently reinstated by Ms Walker.
Ms Walker’s online activities had profound offline effects, with Ms Suttle being the subject of a telephone death threat at her place of work. Complaints were made to her employer and she was required by them to self-report to her regulator. News of the allegations spread far and wide, with Ms Suttle’s hairdresser refusing to serve her because she ‘would not cut the hair of an animal abuser.’ Ultimately Ms Suttle lost the confidence of her staff and had to leave her job.
In total Ms Walker published nine anonymous postings to the group over a four-week period. These were removed after Brett Wilson LLP made legal submissions to Facebook.
Once identified, Ms Walker ignored both the Letter of Claim and the Claim Form. On 31 October 2018 Mr Justice Warby entered judgment in default on the papers and set the matter down for a remedies hearing on 18 January 2019.
Ms Walker did not attend the remedies hearing, with the presiding judge Mr Justice Nicklin taking the view that she was staying away from the proceedings and that the matter should continue in her absence. An anonymous letter received the day before the hearing purportedly sent by an individual on behalf of Ms Walker was deemed inadmissible with the Judge noting the approach adopted by Mr Justice Warby at paragraphs 32-33 in Pirtek (UK) Ltd v Jackson  EWHC 2834 (QB) in respect of defendants seeking to deny liability in correspondence.
Delivering an ex tempore judgment, the Judge made the following remarks on the libel/harassment which have general application to those who publish or promote defamatory and/or hateful content:-
“The campaign was clearly deliberate and targeted, personal, vicious, frightening, calculated to whip up hatred and put the Claimant in fear of safety. It was relentless for three to four weeks. The Facebook group was used to recruit others to gang up on the Claimant. Hiding behind online anonymity is a hallmark of cyberbullying; a victim feels constantly under siege and doesn’t know what to do to stop it.
Those who think the law is impotent when it comes to their online behaviour are mistaken. It is usually very easy to unmask those behind such anonymous blogs and posts. They are then liable for the consequences of what they have done.
It is a sad reflection of modern life that some people are prepared to be so-called keyboard warriors, and are willing to post abusive, violent and menacing messages online in circumstances where it is to be doubted that they would ever behave like this in person. Certainly if they ever carried out these threats in person, they would be liable to arrest and prosecution.”
The judge awarded a global general damages figure of £40,000 for libel and harassment, noting that he considered that the harassment alone would fall in the upper Vento band for distress damages arising form harassment (now £25,200–£42,000 as per the Presidential Guidance from the Employment Tribunals following De Souza v Vinci Construction (UK) Ltd  EWCA Civ 879). The sum of £10,405 was awarded in special damages for the cost of the Norwich Pharmacal proceedings and the legal “clean-up” work involved in seeking the removal of content from Facebook, YouTube and Google, together with interest. Finally, an additional 10% in damages - £5,062.27 – was ordered pursuant to CPR 36.17(4)(d), together with 10.75% interest on damages and costs, as Ms Suttle had achieved a more advantageous result than a Part 36 offer of settlement made at the point the claim was issued.
Ms Walker has also been ordered to pay Ms Suttle’s legal costs, with a £35,000 payment on account.
At the conclusion of the case Ms Suttle issued the below statement:-
“The events of late March and early April 2018, when I was victim of a campaign of online abuse instigated by a woman I had never met, other than to pass her whilst I was walking my dog, will never leave me. Labelling me an animal abuser, the attack on my character was sudden and shocking. It was unprovoked, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent it from happening. It was especially distressing for me as I have been an animal lover and carer all my life. At its worst, it led to me receiving death threats, and having to change my job.
I had no option but to instruct solicitors, initially to help me remove the hate-filled content from the internet. Luckily, I found a firm that was both supportive and effective. As my tormentor was anonymous, I had to obtain a Court Order against Facebook in order to reveal her identity. Even then, when my solicitors confronted her, she refused even to respond. As a result, I was forced to bring libel proceedings against her.
I am so pleased that the Court has recognised the damage and distress caused to me by this wholly false campaign. I hope that today’s Judgment will serve as a warning to others not to make or repeat unsubstantiated allegations on social media, and of the potential consequences to those who do. People should think very carefully before they share or endorse hateful content online. I would like to sincerely thank my barrister Catrin Evans QC and my solicitors, Brett Wilson LLP.”