Overturning of €900k defamation award against man called a drug dealer was incorrect - Supreme Court
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 , 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 that 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 that decision to the Supreme Court which was asked to determine whether it was open to the appeal court to reverse a jury verdict of defamation even if that was arrived at in the face of strong evidence that the defending allegation was true.
It was also asked to decide whether the media had a constitutional right to publish material and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict to the effect that such material was defamatory.
It was further asked to decide whether the appeal court was entitled to reverse the jury verdict on grounds it was perverse if some other alternative explanation was open to the jury.
Today, a seven-judge Supreme Court agreed with two written judgments from Mr Justice William McKechnie and Mr Justice Peter Charleton.
Chief Justice Susan Denham said as a result the court would now receive submissions on whether the matter should be sent back to the High Court for a new hearing or whether the matter of 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, she said.
She said submissions should be in by next week and the court will deal with the matter on July 12.
In its verdict in 2008, the jury found Sunday Newspapers Ltd, publishers of the Sunday World, had failed to prove he was a drug dealer and therefore libelled him in a 1999 article entitled “Traveller Drug King”.
That story arose after gardai seized IR£500,000 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.
In defending his defamation proceedings, the Sunday World denied libel and pleaded the article was true.
In his judgment, Mr Justice McKechnie said he had reached the conclusion that 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.
Mr Justice McKechnie said the jury failed to answer a second question on its issue paper as to whether Mr McDonagh's reputation was damaged having regard to its first answer on all the allegations. While the jury said he was not a drug dealer or loan shark, it also answered "yes" in relation to allegations that he was a tax evader and a criminal. It was clear, in the light of the jury's failure to answer that second question, this rendered its (jury's) verdict on that issue fatally flawed, was not made in accordance with law, and must likewise be set aside, he said.
Mr Justice McKechnie 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 question and the the question of damages.
While doubt remained about what should be done about the drug dealing allegation, the possibilities were that the Supreme Court could reinstate the jury verdict or order a retrial on that issue, he said.
He stood over in principle the unique position of the jury and he was strongly of the view a retrial should be ordered. But given his colleagues' view there should be further submissions from counsel for both sides, he would await those before ultimately determining how the appeal should finally be resolve.
Earlier, Mr Justice McKechinie also said that while he did not doubt the seriousness of labelling a person a drug dealer, and a loan shark, nonetheless in light of the evidence as a whole, and in particular the impact which the successful justification plea must have given rise to, it was was "impossible to conclude that the (award) figure could ever come within the permissible range of what a compensatory award should be".
Mr Justice Charleton, in his judgment, said the Court of Appeal order must be reversed in full.
He noted that the loan shark allegation question may be relevant and that it was 18 years since the events (McDonagh's arrest), Mr Justice Charleton said it was proposed to hear counsel on the jurisdiction of the court.
There would be particular emphasis on whether another hearing on the loan sharking allegation is needed, the issue of damages, and whether there should be a retrial in the High Court, he said.