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I Misspoke Myself

In legal circles the significance of making a wrong statement looms large. We saw this in the case of Willie O’Dea. Willie’s case is a double example; he straddled the legal world and the political world with his error. In the legal world the political world is often looked on with a cold eye, for good reason. In politics “denial” is not, it seems, evidence of a character flaw; it can be a skill, measured by the duration of the deferral of the time one is called to account.

Denial is only incidentally the subject of this post; conveying wrong information is its subject.

We are all of us guilty, at some time or other, of doing this. We have firm clear recollections of where we left the keys, the hand blender, the tea-bags, the car insurance etc. We were wrong. Nevertheless, we conveyed (even propagated) the wrong information to someone else. Errors of this kind are common. Significantly, being wrong is not evidence of wrongdoing.

There are occasions when being wrong is evidence of wrongdoing, but these occasions are not common. Even sworn evidence in court, if not accepted by the court, does not lead to a charge of perjury. Generally, we do not infer dishonesty from the error in the statement. It is tempting to say that the more elaborate the statement, the more it is evidence of a malign intent if it is wrong, but this is not true, as we saw in the case of Hilary Clinton.

Perjury aside, the law has been anxious to distinguish between wrong statements that cause personal injury and wrong statements that cause economic loss. (Most wrong statements cause neither).

We see in the case of Walsh v Jones Lang Lasalle [2007] IEHC 28 an instance of what statements and what circumstances will trigger liability for economic loss in Irish law.

In 2000 the plaintiff purchased 77 Upper Gardiner Street in Dublin for the sum of IR £2,342,000.00 for investment purposes. He dealt with the defendant firm, acting for the vendor and the defendant told him (in its sales brochure) that the property comprised a floor area of 23,057 square feet. In fact the floor area of the property was 21,248 square feet, (1,817 square feet less than what was represented to the plaintiff by the defendant).

The defendant’s brochure contained a disclaimer of liability for wrong statements in the brochure in the following terms;

“Whilst every care has been taken in the preparation of these particulars, and they are believed to be correct, they are not warranted and intending purchasers/lessees should satisfy themselves as to the correctness of the information given.”

The High Court found for the plaintiff as follows; (a) the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant was sufficiently proximate to give rise to a “special relationship” of the kind identified in Wildgust and, (b) that the loss allegedly sustained by the plaintiff was reasonably foreseeable in the circumstances and, (c) that the imposition upon the defendant of such a duty was, in the circumstances not unfair, unjust or unreasonable. The court was satisfied on the facts of the case that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff to ensure that the calculation of the floor area of the property that the defendant published in its sales brochure was accurate.

In the absence of evidence of purchasers commissioning surveys to check the accuracy of precise measurements contained in the brochures of reputable auctioneers, the court refused to find the plaintiff guilty of contributory negligence in failing to check the defendant’s measurements.