News Corp. (NWSA:US)’s British publishing unit won a court ruling to avoid giving victims of its tabloid phone- hacking scandal swathes of new internal e-mail and other evidence ahead of a civil trial scheduled to start next year.
Actor Hugh Grant and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, are among more than 150 victims who wanted the company to give more “generic” proof of wrongdoing to ultimately increase awards in the group case. While the publisher has previously been found to have destroyed evidence in the case and failed to turn over documents, a new search would be disproportionate and costly, Judge Geoffrey Vos ruled in London today.
“I remind myself once again that, had it not been for orders made earlier in this litigation, much of what has now come out might have been successfully concealed forever,” Vos said. “But even with all that background it seems to me that, to put it bluntly: you can have too much of a good thing.”
The company, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, has paid out more than $315 million for legal fees, civil-court settlements, and the cost of shutting the News of the World tabloid, where the hacking scandal took place. The company, which Vos said in February “should be treated as deliberate destroyers of evidence,” continues to be the subject of police probes into phone hacking, e-mail interception and bribery.
“We have always been committed to bringing these proceedings to a fair, appropriate and expeditious conclusion and we welcome today’s judgment which will assist that process,” Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for New York-based News Corp.’s U.K. unit, said in an e-mail.
Vos rejected the victims’ bid for evidence of the “nature and extent” of phone hacking by News of the World journalists, and a search of e-mail databases for proof the tabloid intercepted mobile-phone voice mail before 2001, the earliest year the practice is known to have occurred.
The ruling comes a week after victims’ lawyers abandoned a bid to seek “exemplary” damages intended to punish companies that profit from wrongdoing. The evidence required to pursue such damages could hinder parallel criminal cases, Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for the group, said Sept. 27.
Mark Thomson, another lawyer for the victims, hung up before a request for comment could be made when reached by phone today, and didn’t immediately return an e-mail.
Vos also denied today a request that the unit, London-based News International, expand its list of so-called generic admissions in relation to the scandal, saying the current ones are already “far reaching.”
The company admits “journalists sought and acquired unlawfully obtained information on a large but unquantifiable number of occasions between 2001 and 2006,” Vos said. The current fact enough for a fair case, he ruled.
Under the ruling, the company won’t have to turn over evidence about the extent to which journalists interacted with the tabloid’s former private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed for phone hacking in 2007, and was charged again as part of the new police probe.
The judgment also applies to details of Mulcaire’s work with other private investigators, and the way he obtained medical and financial records for stories. The victims also wanted evidence about his work with other private investigators.
News Corp. will voluntarily provide evidence related to specific victims in the case, according to the judgment. Vos also told the company to hand over nine e-mails it received in August 2006 from Mulcaire.
The publisher agreed to search files given to its law firm, Linklaters LLP, for use in the media-ethics inquiry triggered by the scandal. It will also search documents seized by police and other files given to its previous law firm, BCL Burton Copeland. The search is “significant” and the agreement is “constructive,” Vos said.
The suits are being handled as a single case to establish a common set of claims and facts about the hacking conspiracy and set standards for damages. A trial that had been scheduled for February 2012 was canceled after dozens of victims in an earlier wave of lawsuits were paid as much as 600,000 pounds ($971,000) each, including costs.
More than 80 people have been arrested, and the unit’s former chief executive officer, Rebekah Brooks, has been charged with crimes related to phone hacking along with 13 other people. Prosecutors accused Brooks and others of conspiring to hack the phones of more than 600 people to get news stories before the practice was first exposed in 2006.
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