£20k damages for Belfast letting agent over false ad in gay dating site
A letting agency boss is to receive £20,000 in damages for having his name falsely featured on gay dating websites, the High Court has ruled.
The payout to Philip Swain also covers the posting of an online advertisement which wrongly claimed he was selling up to move to a homosexual district in San Francisco.
Mr Swain, who runs Property Lets NI Ltd, sued over an alleged year-long campaign of libel, harassment and malicious falsehood.
Defendant Steve Gould, described as having an address in Co Down, was identified after the court ordered an internet provider to disclose his details.
Mr Swain is not gay, has not put his business up for sale, and is not relocating to the US west coast, it was stressed in court.
His lawsuit covered profiles being created in his name on various dating sites from June 2012 to May 2013.
An advertisement was also posted on Gumtree stating that his company was for sale because he was moving with a gay partner to San Francisco.
He argued that the campaign was intended to portray him as homosexual, promiscuous and unfaithful, and seeking to meet men for casual encounters.
It was further contended that wrongly depicting him as someone running an unsuccessful business worth only £25,000 and to which he was not committed libelled both him and the company.
Despite a writ being served at his address Mr Gould did not attend court to defend the action against him.
In a ruling last month Master McCorry emphasised that being described as gay cannot by itself be considered defamatory.
But he held that both Mr Swain and his firm had been libelled.
The same finding was made on the businessman's claim to have suffered harassment.
Master McCorry said: "I am satisfied that to post false advertisements purportedly by the second named plaintiff (Mr Swain) on dating sites over a period of approximately a year and to falsely advertise his business for sale on Gumtree, when it was not in fact for sale, never mind for the reasons stated, constitutes harassment such that the second named plaintiff has, on balance or probabilities, proven his cause of action in harassment."
Mr Swain was awarded a total of £20,000, including aggravated damages, to cover both his libel and harassment claims.
Master McCorry said his assessment took into account the slur on the businessman's character, the impact on his life and the emotional and psychological distress, the duration of the offending conduct and range of publication.
"Whilst no-one made direct contact with him on foot of any posting, they did contain his name and he believes that the fact that the postings appeared near to the top of the lists suggests that they were being accessed," he added.
A separate award of £1,000 was made in favour of the company, Property Lets NI Ltd.
Master McCorry held that the extent of any commercial damage from being wrongly classed as for sale on Gumtree would be "very slight".
An order for legal costs was also made against the defendant.