'Perverse’ damages awarded against Sunday World overturned

'Perverse’ damages awarded against Sunday World overturned

THE Court of Appeal has overturned a €900,000 damages award against the Sunday World which a judge described as "perverse".

It arose out of a 2008 High Court jury finding that Martin McDonagh was libelled in a Sunday World article describing him as a "Traveller drug king".

The newspaper had appealed against the award and Mr McDonagh was paid €90,000 pending the appeal.

In a judgment today, the three-judge appeal court, comprising Mr Justice Peter Kelly, Ms Justice Mary Irvine and Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, unanimously allowed the appeal of the newspaper against the entirety of the verdict. 

It found an allegation of drug dealing was true and dismissed that part of his claim.  However, it found there should be a re-trial in relation to a second allegation of loan sharking.

In his judgment on behalf of the court, Mr Justice Hogan said it was clear the jury verdict, so far as it concerned the drug dealing allegation, cannot be allowed stand.

"Viewed objectively, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion the plaintiff (McDonagh) was, indeed, a drug dealer associated with the drugs seizure in Tubercurry", he said.

If the allegation was correct, he said, the newspaper had a constitutional aright to publish this right and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict "which was, in essence, perverse".

The evidence in relation to the loan sharking allegation was much more limited, he said.  It might have been open to a properly instructed jury to find for Mr McDonagh on that allegation and a new trial was ordered, he said.

The case returns to the appeal court next month to deal with costs and other matters.

Mr McDonagh (45), 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 reduced by the Supreme Court to €1.25m, of which a substantial part related to the impact on Ms Leech's business, he added.

Submitting the jury verdict was perverse, counsel 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.

This article was written two or three days into a seven day detention, dealt with the matters at issue in minute detail and was clearly leaked to the paper by gardai, he argued. 

Counsel agreed his client made frank admissions of being a tax cheat and engaging in social welfare fraud but argued it would be wrong and inappropriate to overturn the jury verdict on the basis of such matters.

He accepted, as a statement of law, damages to be made to a person with an unblemished reputation would be larger than a person with a blemished one.

It was not helpful to assess damages in defamation cases according to standards of awards in personal injury cases, counsel said.

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.

Via Irish Independent