€900,000 libel award against 'Sunday World' is dismissed
Judge describes jury verdict in ‘drug king’ case as ‘perverse’
The Court of Appeal has overturned a €900,000 damages award against the 'Sunday World' which a judge described as "perverse".
Martin McDonagh has been paid €90,000 of the €900,000 award, made in 2008, pending the outcome of an appeal by the newspaper.
Mr McDonagh (45), of Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999, describing him as a "Traveller drug king".
The article was published in the newspaper mid-way through his seven-day detention for questioning in connection with a major drug seizure at Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.
Mr McDonagh, who has always denied involvement in drugs, was ultimately released without charge.
A jury found the newspaper had failed to prove that Mr Mc-Donagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark but the 'Sunday World' had proven he was a tax evader and a criminal.
However the three-judge appeal court, led by Mr Justice Peter Kelly, yesterday granted an appeal against "the entirety of the verdict."
"It is clear the jury's verdict as far as it concerns a drug dealing allegation cannot be allowed to stand," said Mr Justice Gerard Hogan.
He said "viewed objectively" the evidence overwhelmingly points to the conclusion the plaintiff was indeed "a drug dealer associated with the drug seizure" at Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.
If the allegation was correct, he said, the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish this right and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict "which was, in essence, perverse".
In these circumstances, the court should allow the appeal against the "entirety of the verdict", he added.
"As the drug dealing allegation has been found to be true, I would also dismiss that part of the plaintiff's claim."
The claim of defamation in relation to the drug dealing allegation was dismissed.
The claim in relation to "loan sharking" was remitted for a retrial in the High Court.
In its appeal last July, presented by Eoin McCullough SC, the 'Sunday World' argued that the jury's findings were perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence before it, including from a series of garda witnesses.
The award was "excessive and disproportionate" and the court should bear in mind the "chilling" effect on journalism of high libel awards, he argued. The previous comparable maximum figure was €400,000 awarded to former politician Prionsias de Rossa, he said.
If the court upheld the jury verdict, any award should be assessed by reference to that maximum and scaled down because this libel was less serious, the court heard.
Mr McCullough said it was "crucial" that several garda witnesses who testified were not cross-examined over statements made by Mr McDonagh in custody.
"No reasonable jury, if they accepted the statements, could have come to any conclusion other than the plaintiff was involved in drug dealing."
Declan Doyle SC, for Mr Mc-Donagh, said calling someone a drug dealer was about the worse thing anyone can say about a person and the article had a "devastating" effect on his client.
Mr Doyle agreed his client made frank admissions of being a tax cheat and engaging in social welfare fraud.