News Corp.’s British newspaper unit settled 36 lawsuits by phone-hacking victims including actor Jude Law and soccer player Ashley Cole, with compensation set on the basis that senior managers at the company knew of the practice and tried to conceal it.
The settlements by London-based News International resolve more than half of the 60 lawsuits filed by victims of voice-mail interceptions at its now-defunct News of the World tabloid. News International agreed to a range of cash payments to victims and provided details about hacking, including the number of journalists involved, three lawyers representing victims said in a statement ahead of a hearing today before Judge Geoffrey Vos in London.
News International “is ready, willing and able to settle” all the claims and a trial shouldn’t be necessary, company lawyer Michael Silverleaf said at the hearing. The compensation is “generous.”
The settlement amounts are larger than those normally paid in privacy-violation cases, according to today’s statement. They range from 5,000 pounds ($7,700) for less-serious phone-hacking instances to about 100,000 pounds for the most-offensive cases, a person familiar with the matter said. Of the 18 settlements outlined in court today, total payouts will be at least 642,000 pounds plus legal fees.
The agreements come about a month before the first civil trial in the matter is scheduled to begin. Vos said a trial is still important for resolving various issues stemming from phone hacking to help settle future cases.
Pop Star, Comedian
There are 10 cases prepared to go to trial, including those by sports agent Sky Andrew, comedian Steve Coogan and pop star Charlotte Church, who sang at News Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch’s wedding in 1999 when she was 13 years old, lawyer Hugh Tomlinson said.
“The claimants themselves now know much more about what private messages were listened to, who intercepted their messages and who authorized it,” according to the statement from the victims’ attorneys. The information provided by News International also covers “who was paid and how much.”
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, helping to prompt News Corp. to shutter the tabloid in July and Murdoch to be called to give testimony to lawmakers the same month. Police in London have said about 800 people were targeted by the paper.
News International, which previously denied phone hacking was widespread, apologized to victims in court today.
In a statement, the company said its News Group Newspapers unit, which it refers to as NGN, had made no admission “that directors or senior employees knew about the wrongdoing by NGN or sought to conceal it. However, for the purpose of reaching these settlements only, NGN agreed that the damages to be paid to claimants should be assessed as if this was the case.”
The company admitted hacking Cole’s phone and having him followed by a private investigator. He settled for an undisclosed amount. Law, one of six victims whose lawsuits were chosen as “test cases” for the trial, will receive 130,000 pounds. The company also agreed to pay 50,000 pounds to settle with Law’s ex-wife Sadie Frost and 40,000 pounds each to former U.K. deputy prime minister John Prescott and his former chief of staff Joan Hammell.
‘Years of Lying’
“After years and years of lying, News International are finally beginning to let us touch the hem of the truth,” U.K. lawmaker Chris Bryant said outside the court. Bryant settled his case against the company for 30,000 pounds.
The company also agreed to continue searching its e-mail archives for information about communications interception, and new claims can be brought in circumstances where more wrongdoing emerges, the lawyers said.
“Attempts are being made to reconstruct e-mail archives which had been destroyed by News Group in an apparent attempt to cover up wrongdoing,” the lawyers said in the statement.
The three-week trial, scheduled to begin Feb. 13, will go forward and is intended to give guidance on damages for current and future lawsuits and out-of-court settlements in the five-year-old scandal.
“There are many more cases in the pipeline,” said Mark Lewis, one of the first lawyers to represent a victim of News Corp.’s phone hacking. “There will be lots more revelations of wrongdoing and lots more compensation to be paid.”
The unit of New York-based News Corp. faces three related police investigations into phone hacking, computer hacking and bribery of police officers by journalists. A judge-led inquiry into press ethics has also begun at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron.