Virgin issues writ after talks with BA collapse: Branson in court move over 'dirty tricks'

RICHARD BRANSON'S Virgin Atlantic yesterday launched its long-awaited legal action against British Airways over the dirty tricks affair by issuing a writ in the High Court.

The writ follows the breakdown of talks aimed at settling the dispute and alleges copyright infringement, breach of confidence and misuse of confidential information by BA.

Sir Colin Marshall, BA's chairman, and Robert Ayling, group managing director, are both expected to be subpoenaed to give evidence in court by Virgin's lawyers.

Lord King, who retired early from the BA chairmanship in the wake of the affair and took up the honorary post of president, could also be subpoenaed.

Virgin said that the proceedings related to the accessing by BA of computer details on Virgin Atlantic passengers, aircraft load factors and associated passenger and travel services. Further writs are likely to be issued in the British courts against BA relating to conspiracy and commercial tort.

In addition, an anti-trust case will be launched against BA in the United States, probably in the next four to five weeks. In anti-trust actions, judges can award triple damages.

Mr Branson had been threatening to take further legal action against BA since he was awarded pounds 610,000 libel damages and given an unreserved apology in the High Court in January.

Protracted talks to settle the dispute collapsed in March after Mr Branson refused to accept a pounds 9m compensation payment from BA, claiming that the terms of the settlement would have prevented him from referring to the dirty tricks case in future.

The catalyst for yesterday's writ appears to have been a statement in last week's BA News, the airline's weekly staff newspaper, defending the integrity of Sir Colin and Mr Ayling against fresh allegations and challenging Mr Branson to state any claims he might have 'in the appropriate courts'. Last night BA said: 'BA has made it clear that any liability that it may have will be met in full and regrets that Virgin discontinued the settlement discussions.'

The case it could last for anything between three months and three years. Even if the UK action is settled quickly, the anti-trust case in the US is likely to drag on longer.