Appeal Court wrong to overturn McDonagh's €900k award
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.
The Irish Times reports that 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
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.
"Traveller Drug King"
On Wednesday, 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 12th.
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 gardaí seized IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and
amphetamines in August, 1999, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. It was published on
September 5th, 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
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.
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