Steam Engine Society Forced To Sell Steam Engine Because 13 Photographers Might Have (But Probably Didn't) See Article

from the time-for-reform dept

In our recent post concerning the attempt by the UK to reform its ridiculous defamation laws (finally), Ben pointed out a perfect example of why those libel laws need fixing. Apparently a volunteer society focused on preserving a specific train steam engine (the 6024) was forced to sell its carefully restored steam engine thanks to a highly questionable libel suit from the society’s former chair, who was ousted in a dispute. The Society’s newsletter, which goes almost entirely to society members, discussed the dispute with the former chair and that guy sued claiming libel. The Society pointed out that the newsletter only went to other society members and the court initially agreed. However, the former chairman pointed out that the newsletter was also sent out to a grand total of 13 photographers whose images appeared in the newsletter, but who were not members of the society. And the court found that because those 13 people might have read the article (even though no evidence was presented suggesting they did), that the libel charge was valid. So now, the Society had to sell off the engine that it had restored just to pay for the legal costs of defending itself… because 13 people might have (but probably didn’t) see the article in question.

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Comments on “Steam Engine Society Forced To Sell Steam Engine Because 13 Photographers Might Have (But Probably Didn't) See Article”

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charliebrown (profile) says:

OK, I’ve read about some crazy lawsuits on here and kept my mouth shut but I have to speak up if only to voice how ridiculous that sounds! No, I’m not doubting the story is true: I’m referring to how ridiculous that situation is! If I was to pick words to describe it, I would need a vocabulary twice the size of my current one with swear words WAY stronger! I mean, for f*ck’s sake, the world is beyond f*cked up and nobody is safe from these c*nts who abuse the sh*t outta the legal systems anymore =(

Overcast (profile) says:

The man headed a volunteer society but didn’t care enough for its true aims not to destroy it. He defamed himself with this suit.

Well said – they couldn’t have done a better job in the end.

And even more so if you read the source article:

“Unfortunately, there was also a report about a dispute between the society and its former chairman, Steve Underhill, who was forced out in October 2007 after other members alleged that he had been paid for work on the locomotive which he should have done for nothing.”

I guess he was just in it for the $$$ coming and going.

Andy says:

Off with his head.

If I’d been a volunteer for 33 years with a society then I, too, would be more than a little annoyed if someone effectively accused me of stealing and told 400 of the people that I’d worked with… who could probably pass on the ‘news’ to other like-minded people.

I’m sure that an apology would have been a lot less costly…

The ’13’ is a red-herring, the society was trying to use the ‘only 400’ as a legal reason for not being considered for libel.

Anonymous Coward says:

Once again, TD is focusing on something small and ignoring the bigger issue.

13 is just a number. It could have been 1, it could have been 1 million. All it did was establish circulation outside of a private group.

The reality is that a man who gave his life to a cause was attacked unfairly, with nothing to back it up, and sued for damages as a result. Because the society wasn’t smart enough as a group to check their newsletter before it went out, they bare responsiblity for their actions.

Congrats to TD for once again ignoring the forest and focusing on a blade of grass. A total fail.

Anonymous Coward says:


He didn’t set out to demolish the cause. I suspect that a well placed retraction and maybe the resignation of the people who wrote the newsletter would have been sufficient. Sadly, they chose to fight, and they lost. Only the society itself took the risk and destroyed it.

The victim is a victim, don’t make it try to sound otherwise.

freak (profile) says:


I think you’re missing another point . . .

If he was attacked unfairly, then why does it matter whether it was within a private group or not?
I could see if it was available to the general public, or to any large number of people, but to say 400 is not enough to be libel, and 413 is?

AFAIK, there’s no hard law saying that 401 or more people have to have possibly seen an article for it to be defamation.

Further, we have the issue with the idea of a private group over a public group; why does including 13 photographers make it a non-private group?
Couldn’t it be considered the group of society members, and the group of photographers who took pictures for them? Neither of those seem non-private to me.

That he WAS attacked unfairly, I’ll take, because the courts did decide he should win the case. That’s not what I’m arguing.

kemcha (profile) says:

His lawsuit has merit. I can’t believe everyone is abdicating that nobody should be sued if someone slanders you with libelous comments. It doesn’t matter whether or not someone read it. The fact is, that this society printed the comments.

It would be one thing if it wa sprinted and never delivered to a single person. However, it was delivered to society members as well as photographers not associated as members of the society.

In the end, the society should have been more careful about what they were publishing and they should be held accountable for their remarks. In this country, you cannot slander anyone, unless you can prove it. This is why people file slander-based lawsuits are filed all of the time, in the U.S.

Sounds like they’re going to lose the lawsuit because if they had to sell the steam engine to pay for their defense, then, it means that this lawsuit is going to bankrupt them.

Eo Nomine says:

I agree with the comments that the number of people who may or may not have seen the newsletter is irrelevant. The basic test for defamation is generally (a) making a defamatory statement (b) about an identifable individual (c) to a third party. This appears to pass that test. It’s then up to the alleged defamer to raise possible defenses (truth, etc.)… this costs money, which one would assume is why the group needed to sell assets.

Not sure how much of a condemnation this is of the UK’s “ridiculous defamation laws”, when it isn’t clear to me that this exact same situation couldn’t have arisen in any other jurisdiction with defamation law, including the US. CDA 230 wouldn’t apply here, and not aware of a requirement under US law to prove that a publication or a defamatory statement was actually read (outside of instances where this was needed to establish jurisdiction). That said, I’m not a US attorney…

So, this appears to be more of a condemnation of defamation law in general.

Joe Smith says:


It matters a great deal whether anyone outside the club read the newsletter because (1) publication of the details of the underlyng dispute to the members would be protected by qualified privilege; and (2) if no one other than members read the newsletter then the Plaintiff could not have suffered any actual losses from the publication.

kemcha (profile) says:

oublication, it really does matter. The whole argument by the society is that they shouldn’t be liable because the publication was never seen by the general public.

That is not what defines slander.

Slander deals with the actual intent that publishing said article would create. If “one” person reads the article, it’s slander, no matter the kind of “spin” you try to put it through.

Wikipedia defines Slander (or Defamation) as “the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image. It is usually a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).”

This is slander. Fact is, that the society would have never been the subject of a lawsuit if they hadn’t published the article. The minute they published the article, they slandered this man. The article doesn’t even have to read by a single person, to prove slander, all one needs is a copy of the published article by the organization who published it.

Their whole basis is that they shouldn’t be sued because the general public didn’t read it is totally false. That isn’t a valid argument in trying to get the lawsuit dismissed.

IN the end, the society is going to lose the lawsuit because they should have realized that it was a slanderous article. I’m just surprised that they didn’t consult an attorney before posting that article since it concerned a person that they “ousted” in a dispute. Common sense should have told them to protect themselves before they approved the article for publication.

Instead, they rpobably didn’t consult an attorney and because of the animosity between the “former chairperson” and the society, they should have realized that he would be looking for any reason to sue the society, since they removed him from his position within the society.

Claiming “qualified privilege” is a load of crap because the only people who can claim “privilege” are attorney’s, anyone in the medical profession, and spouses (wife/husband). The society simply cannot claim privilege, even if being a member in the society has that written into their guidelines. The only thing that would do is force the removal of that member from the society for divulging the newsletter.

However, in this case, the newsletter was distributed to photographers, who were not even members of the society so they wouldn’t even be able to claim privilege, even if the courts allowed it to.

Joe Smith says:

Re: oublication


Sorry, I misspelt “publication” in my subject line.

Under British libel law there is a qualified privilege under some circumstances that will protect statements that are defamatory. Indeed one of the articles linked to refers to this when it said “Lawyers for the 6024 Society argued in court that the journal, with a circulation of just 400 copies, was covered by legal privilege because it is only read by members of the society. This argument was accepted by the court.”

kemcha (profile) says:

Anonymous Coward, you, sir, are an idiot.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, the “former chairperson,” does not need to prove to prove that anyone read it. The only thing he needs to prove is that they published it. The society, by publishing the article in the newsletter, showed intent to inflict injury upon the man’s reputation, by painting an image of the man in a negative light.

It is not necessary to prove whether someone read the article, or not. To prove the basis of defamation, the plaintiff needs to show that the defendant (the Society) intended to paint a negative picture of the plaintiff through the article. The fact is, that the society made a big mistake by approving that article for publishing, which the editors for the newsletter should never had approved, in the first place.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:


The plaintiff in the lawsuit, the “former chairperson,” does not need to prove to prove that anyone read it. The only thing he needs to prove is that they published it.

I’m not sure this is true. Quite frequently in defamation cases, we see the number of people who likely would have seen the story used as a test to see whether or not the act was really defamatory. I’ve seen cases thrown out that involve a very small number of people actually seeing the content. But, again, there may be some peculiar points having to do with UK law…

kemcha (profile) says:

Actually, they don’t need to prove that anyone read, only that the creator of the published piece, intended harm, when they created the published work.

According to Wiki:

There are several ways a person must go about proving that libel has taken place. First, the person must prove that the statement was false. Second, that person must prove that the statement caused harm. And, third, they must prove that the statement was made without adequate research into the truthfulness of the statement. These steps are for an ordinary citizen. In the case of a celebrity or public official trying to prove libel, they must prove the first three steps and they must also prove that the statement was made with the intent to do harm.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:


Actually, they don’t need to prove that anyone read

That’s false, and your own quote shows it.

There are several ways a person must go about proving that libel has taken place. First, the person must prove that the statement was false. Second, that person must prove that the statement caused harm. And, third, they must prove that the statement was made without adequate research into the truthfulness of the statement.

See the “caused harm” part. That only happens if people read it and believed it and took action on it.

drew (profile) says:

3 things

1) What is not clear anywhere in the article is if the court determined that what was published was false. Without this we must assume that, given the result, there was material flasehood in the article. If so then the damages do not seem unreasonable. See point 2.
2) Damages of ?7,000, costs of ?335,000. If that doesn’t illustrate how fucked up the legal profession is I don’t know what does.
3) None of this changes the fact that the UK does have some totally screwed up libel laws.

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