Wednesday 13 December 2017

Journalism will be the loser if libel damages remain a lottery

The unpredictability of defamation juries is hitting the news media hard at a time when we mustn't stop the press

Graham Norris: Died in crash but other driver awarded €225,000
Graham Norris: Died in crash but other driver awarded €225,000

John Maher

Last week a Dublin jury awarded €225,000 to a truck driver who had been involved in a fatal collision in Waterford in 2005. On a dark October morning, Stephen Kelly had driven to the woods near Ashtown Cross, where he was due to pick up a load of timber. To make the final turn into the narrow laneway into the woods, he first swung his truck on to the wrong side of the road. For nearly half a minute, his vehicle was a steel roadblock across the whole width of the carriageway, and in that time a small car struck the side of the truck, and 27-year-old Graham Norris lost his life.

The death of Mr Norris was, as might be expected, a devastating event for his family. However, some 12 years later, a jury determined that there were damaging consequences for the truck driver too. In awarding €225,000 to Mr Kelly, they accepted that he deserved compensation for what the Sunday World had said about him. A double-page spread in the newspaper reported that the family claimed he had shown no sign of remorse for his role in Mr Norris's death, and suggested he gave misleading evidence in a criminal case where he was acquitted on a charge of dangerous driving causing death. Mr Kelly challenged these assertions, while the newspaper put forward evidence that its claims were true.

Undoubtedly the jury faced a difficult task, assessing the impact of the newspaper articles on Mr Kelly's life and reputation, against the tragic backdrop of the crash and the effect on the bereaved Norris family. What no one outside the jury room can know, however, is how the decision to find in favour of the truck driver led to a conclusion that the effect on him was worth €225,000. The case highlighted, once again, how unpredictable the libel law regime can be, when it comes to the crucial final part of the trial process. Even the most seasoned observers who believe they know which way a jury is leaning during a trial will have no idea what kind of figure might be awarded at the end.

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