BrewDog loses its bite
High Court sides with Donald Trump in defamation case
It is always dangerous to mix politics with business as well-known craft brewer BrewDog found out to its cost in the High Court.
Back in 2016 BrewDog entered into an agreement with US redneck brewer Scofflaw to launch its products in the UK.
Scofflaw in due course engaged Frank PR to promote the launch of its beer at a number of BrewDog’s bars across the UK. Frank PR issued the following press release to drum up trade on 27 September 2018:
“Free beer offered to UK Trump supporters this weekend by contentious US brewery ‘Scofflaw’ This weekend see’s [sic] redneck US brewers Scofflaw (known as the Jackass brand of the brewing industry) partner with badass beer brand Brewdog to launch in the UK. The self-confessed ‘trailer trash’ brewers are renowned in the states for their lawless attitude and have landed in London today — their aim? To get the UK ‘beered up redneck style’, completely free of charge! But there is a hook … you have to be a Trump supporter. Scofflaw are putting tens of thousands of pounds behind Brewdog bars in Shoreditch, Soho, Shepherd’s Bush, Tower Hill, Manchester and Leeds over the next 7 days and are intending to crash onto the UK beer scene …”
BrewDog was not consulted on the release and it took grave exception to it on the basis that it alleged that its customers would assume that it was pro-Trump. This message went against the fact that BrewDog was “a “punk” brewer operating an anti-business model and was known to be a critic of US President Donald Trump”. The commercial agreement with Scofflaw was cancelled.
Legal proceedings were then issued by BrewDog against Frank PR in the Bristol District Registry in July 2019 claiming damages for defamation and negligent misstatement. However, BrewDog’s case came rapidly to an end when Mr Justice Nicol struck out its whole case without a trial after a hearing on 1 May 2020.
The judge took a robust approach stating at paragraphs 28 and 33 of his judgment that:
“In my judgment, the press release said little about the Claimants other than that they had embarked on a partnership with Scofflaw and Scofflaw was promoting its beer by offering free beer to supporters of Donald Trump. I agree with Mr Glen that the press release said nothing about the political philosophy of the Claimants. For the avoidance of doubt, so far as the Particulars of Claim should be interpreted as alleging an alternative formulation of the natural and ordinary meaning as ‘BrewDog was a supporter of the policies of Donald Trump and/or right-wing politics and/or politics of intolerance and prejudice of the kind supported by, or associated with Donald Trump… I reject that as well”
“For the reasons which I have explained above, it is not necessary for me to decide whether it would be defamatory at common law to say of someone that they were a supporter of Donald Trump or his policies. Plainly he is a controversial politician. Mr Glen agreed that what mattered was how such words would be viewed in this jurisdiction and therefore the support for Donald Trump by some voters in the USA is not material. Nonetheless, even in England Mr Trump has supporters as well as opponents. In other words, simply to say of someone that they were a supporter of Donald Trump (or his policies) would not arguably lower that person in the eyes of right-thinking people generally”.
The strike out no doubt resulted in a substantial adverse costs order. Mr Justice Nicol was also critical of how BrewDog’s claim had been pleaded.
The case is a reminder that parties should not mix politics with business unless this cannot be avoided. Still less should they expect and assume that the courts will work in accordance with their own particular partisan world views and to hand down judgments accordingly.