March 13, 2023
In 2017 the claimant, FGX, who was in a romantic relationship and shared a house with the defendant Stuart Gaunt, found a microscopic camera concealed in the bathroom of the house. Over the next few days she discovered that Mr Gaunt had filmed her naked in various circumstances. She then also discovered that Mr Gaunt had uploaded the images onto a pornographic website, alongside a photo of her face so she could be recognised. She located screenshots of payment platform websites, from which she inferred that he had made money from uploading the images.
In September 2020, Mr Gaunt was convicted of voyeurism and other sexual offences. He received a two-year suspended sentence and was ordered to sign the Sex Offenders Register for ten years.
In December 2020, FGX issued proceedings against Mr Gaunt for: (i) intentionally exposing FGX to a foreseeable risk of injury or sever distress that resulted in injury; (ii) breach of privacy; and (iii) misuse of private information. Judgment was entered for FGX when Mr Gaunt failed to provide any defence to the claim.
In assessing damages, in addition to the above facts, Mrs Justice Thornton DBE found on the evidence, including expert psychiatric evidence and online content removal evidence, that:
- the images in question were intimate images, albeit not of sexual activity, and the relationship between FGX and Mr Gaunt did not involve any intimate image-based activity;
- it was not known how many images were uploaded to the pornographic website or the extent to which they had been replicated and downloaded;
- the expert assessment was that the likelihood of the images having been replicated elsewhere was high and it would be rare for there to be fewer than 20 images available;
- because of Mr Gaunt’s conduct, FGX suffered from chronic PTSD; she was one of a minority of cases in which PTSD becomes chronic over several years, causing an enduring personality change;
- separately, FGX had suffered a relapse of an existing mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, of which greater than 50% was attributable to Mr Gaunt’s conduct;
- the continued existence of the images online was a significant source of ongoing distress to FGX and a barrier to her recovery; and
- Mr Gaunt’s conduct had had a serious impact on FGX’s private life and lifestyle; she had lost trust in people and become reclusive, to the extent of changing her job and refraining from personal relationships.
Given that there was no case directly on point to assist in determining a suitable award for general damages, Thornton J followed relevant guidance and other case law. Applying the guidance in MGN Ltd v Representative Claimants  EWCA Civ 129, Thornton J found that:
- the images of FGX amounted to private information of significance;
- once downloaded, the images would remain available for viewing, even if FGX engaged a content removal company, as she proposed doing; and
- the effect of repeated intrusions by publication can be cumulative and, here, it had contributed to the development of chronic PTSD and an enduring personality change that was profound.
Considering Reid v Price  EWHC 594 (QB), which was factually similar, Thornton J said:
- the award of £25,000 in Reid v Price was a floor not a ceiling and did not include an award for a medical diagnosis of psychological harm;
- unlike in Reid v Price, FGX had not sought to put herself into public life;
- FGX’s diagnosis of chronic PTSD was based, in part, on her continuing preoccupation with the images remaining available to the public.
None of the cases cited on misuse of information concerned publication on a pornographic website. Thornton considered the consequent degradation and humiliation for FGX from this type of publication considerably heightened the violation of her personal dignity and autonomy resulting from the misuse of her information.
Thornton J also accepted that the impacts on FGX were akin to the impacts of sexual assault, as listed in the Judicial College guidelines, albeit that the abuse was image-based rather than physical.
Whilst there were permanent effects on FGX, she was able to work and there was evidence of some improvement. Therefore, Thornton J considered category (b) (moderately severe PTSD) to be the appropriate category as set out in the Judicial College guidelines. FGX’s case was towards the top end of the category given the enduring personality change.
The only case cited on quantum for the intentional infliction of injury by way of sexual texting and the sending of indecent images was ABC v Willock  EWHC 2687, in which £31,970 (in today’s figures) was awarded.
Thornton J also considered aggravated damages to compensate FGX for additional distress arising from Mr Gaunt’s conduct, including the needless uploading of a photograph of FGX’s face onto the pornographic website and the evidence that he had obtained payment for the images. A further aggravating feature was Mr Gaunt’s failure to participate in these proceedings, which had deprived FGX of the opportunity to obtain information about the extent of publication, which remained a preoccupation for her and a barrier to her recovery.
Considering all the above, Thornton J awarded general damages of £60,000, which included a modest uplift for aggravated damages (to avoid double counting). Thornton J also awarded special damages of £37,041.61 to cover, inter alia, treatment costs incurred, future treatment costs, interest and costs to remove the images from the internet. The total awarded was therefore £97,041.61. (FGX v Stuart Gaunt  EWHC 419 (KB) (27 February 2023) — to read the judgment in full, click here).