Friday 24 March 2017

That one click could cost you a fortune

Paul Lambert

EMAIL messages pose serious commercial and legal issues for all organisations and employees. Anyone can be found liable, regardless of whether they work for commercial or non-commercial bodies.

Universities, charities or even sports clubs can be found liable for employee actions. The concept is known as vicarious liability.

Emails, in particular, pose serious commercial and legal issues, such as defamation or inadvertently creating legal contracts.

The trouble for organisations is that they can be held responsible for the comments of their employees, staff or members. The individual author of the email may also be held liable.

Employees should always bear in mind that while emails and posts online can be sent with the click of a mouse, the consequences can be significant.

If the content is defamatory, they and the organisation can be sued. Once the email is sent, it cannot be taken back.

Employees should constantly update themselves as to the policies of the organisation in relation to email and the internet.

This includes email communications, internet use, postings, social networking as well as such things as music and film downloading.

It is always useful to consider how you would feel if a third party -- or a judge -- was ever to read your emails. Would you be entirely happy?

So, dealing with these risks is really an issue for the individual, as much as the organisation. In a worst case, the employee can be sued as well as losing their job.

While the GMIT case may well be the first of its type in Ireland, there have been other defamation cases elsewhere in relation to the internet and emails.

In the UK, a case involving Western Provident and Norwich Union surrounded alleged defamatory emails being sent by employees about a competitor.

The case was settled for £400,000 (€470,000) in damages. In another case, damages of £26,000 (€30,000) plus costs of £100,000 (€120,000) were awarded.

So what should an organisation do? The aim should be to minimise the defamation risk as much as possible.

Appropriate polices and sanctions need to be implemented and regularly reviewed. All organisations need appropriate formal policies, procedures and manuals.

This sets out what employees can and cannot do when using company email and internet facilities.

Increasingly, such policies need to incorporate mobile phones and work activities outside of the office, for example working at home.

Employees need to know about the disciplinary procedures.

Failure to plan properly can lead to costly mistakes -- as was found out yesterday.

Paul Lambert is a partner at Merrion Legal, solicitors and community trademark attorneys

Irish Independent

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