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News Corp. Phone-Hacking Trial Delayed Over Damages Dispute

News Corp.’s civil phone-hacking trial in Britain was delayed by three months until at least May after a judge said the company and its victims need to overcome a dispute over the scope of the three-week hearing.

A decision must be reached about whether victims of News Corp.’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid should be allowed to seek so-called exemplary damages, Judge Geoffrey Vos said at a hearing today. The case also risks being overwhelmed by victims’ requests for internal e-mails and other evidence from News Corp., Vos said in London.

“There has to be a balance,” Vos said. “I am assessing damages; I am not conducting a public inquiry. A fair assessment can be done without looking at every document.”

News Corp., the New York-based company controlled by Rupert Murdoch, is trying to move on from the scandal after the civil case and a parallel criminal probe that began last year revealed a cover up of phone hacking and bribery. About 80 people have been arrested in three criminal probes, including another journalist today over a stolen phone.

Delving into the facts required to justify such damages risks hindering related criminal cases, Vos said. He scheduled a three-day hearing on the matter starting Sept. 25 to determine whether to bar that type of damages or limit the amount of documents given to victims.

Newspaper Sales

Exemplary damages are appropriate because a high-level conspiracy facilitated the use of hacked private information of celebrities and other public figures to sell more newspapers and increase profit at News Corp.’s U.K. unit, victims’ lawyers said. Vos disputed the extent of evidence victims need to prove their case for damages.

About 60 claims have been filed by people whose voice mail was intercepted by journalists, Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer for the victims, said at the hearing. While about 400 other potential victims have asked the Metropolitan Police Service to disclose evidence about possible hacking, only about 40 more are expected to sue and join the trial, Tomlinson said.

Recent lawsuits against the company include those by singer Kerry Katona and criminal-defense lawyer Kirsty Brimelow, who newspapers said in 2007 had an affair with the country’s then-chief prosecutor Ken Macdonald. At the time, Macdonald had just overseen the first phone-hacking criminal case against the News of the World’s former royals reporter Clive Goodman and ex-private detective Glenn Mulcaire.

Generic Claims

News Corp. asked Vos at a July 30 hearing to keep secret a series of new claims being made to justify the exemplary damages. The company wants details of the allegations kept from the public unless they are approved and added to the victims’ so-called generic claims for the trial.

Vos said he may limit which documents among millions of pages of evidence should be used in the trial, including e-mails between journalists and News International executives. Some of the messages are “gobbledygook” and don’t add to the overall understanding of the conspiracy and cover up, he said.

“We are looking at a jigsaw puzzle with 100 pieces and we have 30 of them,” Tomlinson said. “We are trying to see what the whole picture looks like.”

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