News Corp. (NWSA)’s British newspaper unit settled at least 15 more lawsuits by victims of illegal voice- mail interceptions at its News of the World tabloid and delayed the first civil trial in the scandal by two weeks.
Lawyers for the company read apologies to nine victims today, including soccer agent Sky Andrew, one of the paper’s first known phone-hacking targets, and actor-comedian Steve Coogan. While lawyers said dozens more lawsuits would soon be filed, the only remaining complaint ready for the so-called test trial was filed by Welsh singer Charlotte Church.
Judge Geoffrey Vos denied a request by News Corp. to indefinitely delay the trial to deal with what the company said were difficulties related to Church’s claim. He rescheduled the trial for Feb. 27. “If it is a hard nut to crack, then certainly it is my job to crack it,” Vos said.
News Corp. has agreed to pay out more than 5 million pounds ($7.9 million) to resolve claims by hacking victims, settling 54 lawsuits out of 60 that were filed by October. The scandal led New York-based News Corp. to close News of the World in July and the company faces a separate judicial inquiry and three related police probes.
More than 50 victims are preparing new lawsuits, lawyer Mark Lewis said in an interview today. The U.K. unit, News International, has admitted liability and tried to resolve the cases out of court, offering victims an online process overseen by a former judge to begin settlement talks.
Daisy Dunlop, a spokeswoman for News International, declined to comment.
The Metropolitan Police Service has said more than 800 people were targeted and thousands of other names were found in the notes of Glenn Mulcaire, the ex-News of the World private investigator who was jailed for phone hacking in 2007.
Mulcaire’s lawyer, Gavin Millar, asked Vos to consider barring the press from reporting on parts of the trial -- a request the judge put off ruling on until a later hearing. Millar argued the trial could prejudice his client, who was arrested again in December and hasn’t been charged.
News Corp. lawyer Michael Silverleaf had sought a longer delay, arguing the plaintiffs are taking “polarizing” and “extreme” views about the specific instances of alleged phone hacking in Church’s lawsuit. One of the disputed calls lasted only five seconds, not long enough for hacking to take place, he said.
Silverleaf also sought disclosure of evidence about Church’s family finances and her current medical condition, including her state of mind. News of the World wrote stories about her pregnancy and her parent’s marriage.
“I think it’s disproportionate to go into the entire Church family’s financial affairs,” Vos said.
Church, who sang at News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s wedding, agreed to give medical records and details of her complaints about other media companies over their coverage of her, Vos said. She also consented to a medical examination by a doctor selected by News International, he said.
Andrew will receive 75,000 pounds and Coogan 40,000 pounds, lawyers said at the hearing. Soccer player Paul Gascoigne and Alastair Campbell, who was spokesman for former Prime Minister Tony Blair, also settled their cases. Lawmaker George Galloway also agreed to resolve his claim.
The hacking of Andrew’s phone was particularly egregious because it affected the privacy of his clients, his lawyer Charlotte Harris said. His lawsuit was one of the first to uncover evidence that chipped away at News International’s argument that phone hacking wasn’t widespread.
“I am particularly pleased that News Group have also undertaken to continue searches of other ‘documents in its possession,’ so that I can ascertain the extent of any further wrongdoing, both for the time I worked in Downing Street and since,” Campbell said on his website. “They have agreed I ‘may be entitled to further damages in certain circumstances.’”
Evidence uncovered in civil cases by actor Sienna Miller and other celebrity victims in 2010 revealed the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World, prompting News Corp. to shutter the tabloid in July and Chairman Rupert Murdoch to be called to give testimony to lawmakers the same month.
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