Sunday World appealing €900k libel award for 'drug king' article
THE Sunday World is appealing an award of €900,000 against the paper for an article alleging a member of the travelling community was a "drug king".
The award issued by a jury to Martin McDonagh was the largest libel award in the history of the State at the time (2008).
The appeal opened this morning before a three judge Court of Appeal led by Mr Justice Peter Kelly.
In its appeal, the Sunday World has argued that the verdict of the jury was perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence on all the questions that they answered in favour of Martin McDonagh who is present in court for today's appeal.
Opening the case for the Sunday World, Senior Counsel Eoin McCullough said that if the jury had answered either of two linked questions (question 1a and 1b) on the issue paper in favour of the Sunday World, the overall verdict could not stand.
The Sunday World also contends that the jury failed to answer a second question on the issue paper and said this failure offered the title a full defence to Mr McDonagh's claim.
The newspaper has also claimed that the award reached by the jury was disproportionate and must be set aside.
The previous comparable maximum figure was awarded to former politician Prionsias de Rossa, at almost €400,000, the court heard, and the Sunday World has argued that the case falls to be assessed by that maximum figure and scaled down.
The Sunday World says the libel verdict in the McDonagh case was a less serious libel than in the de Rossa case.
This morning, the Court of Appeal heard that the jury did not answer question two on the issue paper.
The jury had to answer question two before it could go on to answer question three, namely the assessment of damages.
Judge Kelly observed that question two was "tailor made" for the case and said that the jury's answer "not as such" was not an answer at all.
Mr McCullough told the court that the failure to answer the second question was tantamount to jury misconduct.
Judge Kelly observed that if it is found that the jury failed to answer the second question, it could amount to jury misconduct and give rise to a re-trial.
"If they don't answer a question, that is unsatisfactory and amounts to jury misconduct'" said Judge Kelly who added that if the Sunday World is correct on this issue "the only response is a retrial".
Earlier, Mr McCullough said that the consequence of the fact that seven Garda witnesses who testified in the original libel case were not cross examined or contradicted with regard to statements made by Mr McDonagh in Garda custody was "crucial" and meant the dispute should have been resolved in favour of the defendant newspaper.
"No reasonable jury, if they accepted the statements, could have come to any conclusion other than the plaintiff was involved in drug dealing," Mr McCullough told the court.
Mr McCullough said that if the plaintiff must accept that honest evidence was given by the seven gardai in respect of statements made by Mr McDonagh while in Garda custody, then it was not reasonable for the jury to conclude that they (the gardai) weren't telling the truth.
This rendered the jury verdict "perverse" said Mr McCullough who said that they evidence must be given conclusive weight.
A range of material could have been put to the gardai in cross examination added Mr McCullough.
The appeal continues.