McDonagh defamation case settled 10 minutes before decision due

Court was to decide whether €900,000 award against ‘Sunday World’ should stand

Martin McDonagh pictured leaving the Four Courts on Wednesday.  Photograph: Collins Courts

Martin McDonagh pictured leaving the Four Courts on Wednesday. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

A 17-year legal battle over a €900,000 defamation award was settled just 10 minutes before a seven-judge Supreme Court was due to deliver its decision on whether the award should stand.

The appeal arose out of a 2008 High Court jury award to Sligo man Martin McDonagh over a 1999 Sunday World article labelling him a “Traveller drug king”. A jury found he had been defamed by being called a drug dealer and loan shark and made the award.

He received €90,000 of the award as a condition of the court allowing the newspaper to appeal the decision.

On Thursday, five of the seven Supreme Court judges had prepared written judgments for the appeal and refused applications not to give those judgments in light of the settlement.

The court heard the judgments would be published but the figure they recommended should replace the €900,000 award would be blacked out. The majority said the award was excessive and should be set aside.

The original award against the Sunday World arose out of a story it carried after gardaí seized IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August, 1999 in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. It was published 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. He claimed the story tore up his family and led to him being shunned in Sligo. The Sunday World denied libel and pleaded the article was true.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal said the jury decision on the sum was perverse and it found that Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer.

He then appealed to the Supreme Court which said the appeal court was incorrect and its order must be reversed in full.

Just before the judgments were to be delivered, Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, said the case had been “settled” and he apologised to the court for putting it to so much work.

Asked by Chief Justice Susan Denham how long the case had been going on, Mr Doyle said 17 years.

“And 10 minutes ago you settle it,” the Chief Justice said.

Management of risk

In reply to questions from the other judges, Mr Doyle said the settlement, as in any settlement, was about the management of risk and in this case there was enormous risk for both sides. He understood comments from the judges about the public interest issue in the case.

He asked that the court not deliver its judgment in light of the settlement.

Eoin McCullough SC, for Sunday Newspapers, publishers of the Sunday World, agreed and said he was also conscious of the public interest issue and the more general interest of his clients, but he did not wish to resile from the agreement made with the other side.

The Chief Justice said she had found the €900,000 award was excessive and a fair and reasonable sum would be far less.

Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell said his judgment was in agreement with the Chief Justice and with that of Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne.

Ms Justice Dunne said, in her written judgment, that she found the award was excessive, should be set aside and substituted with another figure. However, she said, this should happen only in exceptional circumstances and this case was one of those.

Mr Justice Peter Charleton said he agreed with the Chief Justice, Mr Justice O’Donnell and Ms Justice Dunne. He had not agreed that the figure for substituted damages should be redacted but out of consideration would not mention the figure. Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley also agreed with the majority judgment.