Wednesday 27 March 2019

Golfer loses libel action over handicap cheating claim

Tim Healy

AN amateur golfer has lost a High Court action for libel over what he said was a notice from his club that he had effectively cheated about his playing ability.

Thomas Talbot (75) sued his former club, the Hermitage in Lucan, Dublin, claiming he was defamed in a certificate sent to him by the handicap sub-committee in July 2003 stating his handicap was 13, with the words "General Play (Handicap Building)" at the bottom.

A golfer's handicap is an allowance of strokes allocated to him based on ability and means he can take more shots to reach the hole than his true level of play would allow.

Mr Talbot, a retired insurance official who represented himself in the action, claimed the use of those words meant he was cheating at golf. He sued Hermitage Golf Club, its handicap sub-committee chairman at the time, Eddie Murphy, and the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI).

Mr Justice Daniel Herbert today rejected claims Mr Talbot had been defamed and also that there had been a conspiracy against him by the club born out of Mr Murphy's vindictiveness and and ill-will towards him.

The judge awarded costs of the case, which lasted 21 days and are expected to run into hundreds of thousands, against Mr Talbot, who said afterwards he intended appealing the costs order.

The judge found the words "handicap building" were defamatory and any reasonable and well-informed golfer would fairly conclude that he was being accused of consciously and deliberately inflating his handicap to give himself an unfair advantage in the game by misrepresenting his true playing ability.

However, the judge said, he was also satisfied the words were not published to a third party, which is a requirement for a document to be libellous. The certificate of his handicap was only addressed to Mr Talbot and contained in a sealed envelope left for him in the men's competition room.

The judge was also satisfied that when this information was transferred onto a new database on the club's computer system that this was publication but it was done on an occasion of qualified privilege.

Mr Talbot had told the court that during a two-year period, 2002 to 2003, the handicap sub-committee had reduced his handicap six times, something not suffered by any other member from when he (Talbot) joined the club in 1962 until 2006, the judge said. No other player had been accused of handicap building during that period either, Mr Talbot had said.

The judge said correspondence in 2003 demonstrated to him that members of the handicap sub-committee, including Mr Murphy, were seeking to resolve the divisive issue of Mr Talbot's handicap.

Mr Murphy had no involvement whatsoever in a decision of the Leinster branch of the GUI to carry out an audit of the club in 2003 and 2004 which led to the mistaken suspension of Mr Talbot's handicap for which he later received an apology, the judge said.

He was also satisfied Mr Murphy did not induce three members of the club to write letters of complaint about Mr Talbot's conduct at December 2004 AGM when there had been a number of exchanges about the running of the club.

The club's executive committee had found Mr Talbot was seriously abusive towards Mr Murphy at that meeting. It was not reasonable to contend the decision of Mr Murphy to complain about this was evidence of spite and ill-will, the judge said.

In light of this, he was satisfied Mr Talbot had not discharged the burden of proof that Mr Murphy and other members of the sub-committee were motivated by spite and ill-will towards him or by some other improper motive. Therefore, the occasion of publication of the material was untainted by malice and remains privileged.

The judge also did not accept a suggestion Mr Talbot "might not be a well man", in a letter to a club disciplinary committee set up to investigate complaints against him, could have meant he was mentally ill. He also did not find these words were defamatory.

He further rejected Mr Talbot's claims of defamation against him contained in a circular to all club members in May 2007 which stated he (Talbot) was taking a High Court action against Hermitage and again in a secretary's report in November 2007. These documents did not amount to a republication of the alleged libel, he said.

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