Newspaper asks court to overturn €900,000 libel award
The ‘Sunday World’ has urged the Court of Appeal to overturn a €900,000 damages award made to a man after a jury found he was libelled in an article describing him as a “Traveller drug king”.
Martin McDonagh has been paid €90,000 of the €900,000 award, made in 2008, pending the outcome of the newspaper’s appeal.
Earlier today, a three-judge court led by Mr Justice Peter Kelly, reserved judgment.
Mr McDonagh (45), of Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999, describing him as a “Traveller drug king”.
It was published 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.
The newspaper denied libel and pleaded justification and that the contents of the article were true.
The jury found the newspaper had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark but had proven he was a tax evader and a criminal.
In its appeal, presented by Eoin McCullough SC, the ‘Sunday World’ argued the jury’s findings were perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence before it, including from a series of garda witnesses.
The amount of the award was “excessive and disproportionate” and the court should bear in mind the “chilling” effect on journalism of high libel awards, he also 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 than either the De Rossa case or that of public relations consultant Monica Leech.
Her €1.87m award was last year reduced by the Supreme Court to €1.25m, of which a substantial part related to the impact on Ms Leech’s business, he added. 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.”
He also submitted the jury failed to answer a question, question two, on the issue paper and this was tantamount to “jury misconduct”. Question two had to be answered before the jury could answer question three concerning the assessment of damages, he argued.
Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, said the gravity of this libel was worse than in the case of Ms Leech. 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 McDonagh had also, in evidence, denied he made certain statements in custody. The jury found the defence had not proved his client was a drug dealer and the appeal court should interfere with that only in the most extreme circumstances, he submitted.
Mr Doyle agreed his client made frank admissions of being a tax cheat and engaging in social welfare fraud.
Mr Doyle also argued the court should accept the jury must, by implication, have answered question two as they could not have proceeded to assess damages otherwise.