Thursday 21 September 2017

Judges rule that court was wrong to overturn libel award of €900,000

Martin McDonagh got leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. Photo: Courts Collins
Martin McDonagh got leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. Photo: Courts Collins

Tim Healy

The Supreme Court has found the Court of Appeal was incorrect in overturning a €900,000 damages award for defamation to a man called a drug dealer by a newspaper.

Martin McDonagh, of Cranmore Drive, Sligo, was awarded the money against the 'Sunday World' in 2008 by a High Court jury and received a €90,000 payout as a condition of the paper being allowed to appeal.

The Court of Appeal, in 2015, overturned the award, describing it as "perverse", and found Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer.

In relation to another allegation that he was a loan shark, the appeal court found the evidence in relation to that was much more limited and it might have been open to a properly instructed jury to find for Mr McDonagh on that allegation. As a result, the appeal court said there should be a new trial on that issue.

Mr McDonagh got leave to appeal to the Supreme Court which was asked, among other things, to determine whether it was open to the appeal court to reverse a jury verdict of defamation even if it was arrived at in the face of strong evidence that the defending allegation was true.

Yesterday, a seven-judge Supreme Court agreed with two written judgments from Mr Justice William McKechnie and Mr Justice Peter Charleton.

Mr Justice William McKechnie: reached conclusion the Court of Appeal judgment can not stand
Mr Justice William McKechnie: reached conclusion the Court of Appeal judgment can not stand

Chief Justice Susan Denham said they would now receive submissions on whether the matter should be sent back to the High Court for a new hearing or whether damages could be dealt with by the Supreme Court. The matter may also concern a recent decision on damages for defamation by the European Court of Human Rights in the Monica Leech case. The case comes back to the Supreme Court on July 12.

In its verdict in 2008, the jury found Sunday Newspapers Ltd, publishers of the 'Sunday World', had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and therefore libelled him in a 1999 article describing him as a "Traveller drug king".

That story arose after gardaí seized £500,000 (€568,000) worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August, 1999, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. It was published on September 5, 1999, during Mr McDonagh's seven-day detention for questioning in connection with that seizure. Mr McDonagh denied any involvement in drugs and was ultimately released without charge. The 'Sunday World' denied libel and pleaded the article was true.

In his judgment, Mr Justice McKechnie said he had reached the conclusion the Court of Appeal judgment setting aside the jury verdict on the allegation of drug dealing, and imposing in lieu its own determination on the matter, cannot stand.

The jury had also failed to answer a second question on whether Mr McDonagh's reputation was damaged having regard to its first answer on all the allegations before it moved on to assess damages. This rendered the jury verdict fatally flawed, he said.

The appeal court set Mr McDonagh's credibility "at zero in such a way as to suggest that it was not worthy of credit on any level; this it should not have done", he said. That court equally erred in according "perhaps too much weight" to the "unchallenged" nature of Garda testimony regarding notes taken by officers during Mr McDonagh's detention, he said.

Given his view as to the pre-eminence of the jury's role in this type of action, he instinctively thought the case must be remitted for retrial. The "standout" issues were the loan shark allegation, the failure of the jury to answer that second question and the question of damages.

While doubt remained over what should be done about the drug dealing allegation, the possibilities were the Supreme Court could reinstate the jury verdict or order a retrial on that issue. Mr Justice Charleton, in his judgment, said the Court of Appeal order must be reversed in full.

Irish Independent

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