High Court criticises couple who claim a missent email caused them distress

The Problem

A firm of solicitors were instructed by a school to write to a couple about unpaid fees for their daughter. Unfortunately, the poor paralegal tasked with the job made a mistake in writing the wife’s email address. That one typo meant the email went to another parent with the same surname and the same first initial.

The recipient of the email notified the solicitors that she didn’t think she was the intended recipient immediately and confirmed she had deleted the email and its contents.

The Claim

That could and almost certainly should have been the end of it, but the couple who hadn’t paid the school fees, Mr and Mrs Rolfe then chose to sue Veale Wasbrough Vizards (“VWV”), the solicitors who had made the error.

They claimed damages for misuse of confidential information, breach of confidence, negligence, and damages under s82 GDPR and s169 Data Protection Act 2013.

Their solicitor alleged they had lost sleep worrying about the possible consequences of the data breach, that it had “made them feel ill” and that they had spent huge amounts of time dealing with the issue.

Does there have to be damage, and if so, how much?

The Court accepted it was common ground that in principle damages can be recovered for breaches of data protection regulations and misuse of private information.

“However, there does need to be damage, one cannot succeed in a claim where any possible loss or distress is not made out or is trivial”.

Master McCloud in his judgement accepted VWV’s view that it was simply not plausible that Mr and Mrs Rolfe had suffered any distress above a de minimis threshold in relation to the accidental sending of this email.

As Counsel for VWV said in her skeleton argument, “Whilst unfortunate the incident is simply not of a sufficiently serious nature to have caused damage over the the threshhold.

The Decision

In granting summary judgement to VWV, and ordering that Mr and Mrs Rolfe should pay VWV’s legal costs on an indemnity basis, the Master said:

“In my judgement no person or ordinary fortitude would reasonably suffer the distress claimed arising in these circumstances in the 21st century, in a case where a single breach was quickly remedied.”

But he didn’t end it there. “In the modern world it is not appropriate for a party to claim (especially in the High Court) for breaches of this sort which are, frankly trivial”.

Comment

One does wonder how this matter got to court, but it is another case where the courts are demonstrating that they will not hear speculative or misconceived claims in this area.

Whilst it goes without saying that it’s always worth checking email addresses very carefully, if a mistake does happen, then as long as it is dealt with quickly, efficiently and effectively as it was in this case, the ramifications should be minimal.

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Mark

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