Free Beer?

We are living in strange times where a perceived association with #POTUS can give rise to a libel action, yet this is how things recently played out in London’s High Court.

Background

BrewDog is a craft beer producer based in the UK. In 2016, they agreed with an American brewer, Scofflaw, to launch their products in the UK market. The Defendant, Frank, was engaged by Scofflaw to promote the tie-up, including a series of promotional events scheduled for autumn 2018.

Frank issued a press release 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 … [emphasis included]

BrewDog, who describe themselves as a ‘punk’ brewer operating an anti-business’ model, claims to be known critics of President Trump. Frank’s press release attracted criticism from BrewDog’s equally ‘punk’ investors and the agreement with Scofflaw was immediately cancelled.

That evening, Scofflaw tweeted that they ‘had not approved the press release which had been issued without its knowledge or consent.’ 

This was confirmed in a further press release from Frank the next day. 

BrewDog sued Frank for defamation.

Judgement

The Defendant argued that the tone of the press release was ‘light-hearted’ and ‘played on Scofflaw’s redneck image’. Further, the intended recipients would know it was a ‘publicity gimmick’.

The High Court agreed. Delivering judgement remotely, Mr Justice Nicol, held:

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 have found that the natural and ordinary meaning said nothing about the political philosophy of the claimants. For this reason, it is not necessary to consider whether, if the words complained of had associated the claimants with Donald Trump, that would have been defamatory at common law. The issue simply does not arise. 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.

Comment

It seems at best remiss for a PR agency to issue a press release without the express authority of their client. That their action resulted in the summary cancellation of what could have been a lucrative business relationship for their client may well give rise to a cause of action.   

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Glass Of Lager Beer
BrewDog v Frank [2020] EWHC 1276

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