Jury to assess damages in Aer Lingus pilot’s action

Case involves defamatory emails sent by aviation authority

The jury in the case will be the first  to assess damages under an ‘offer of amends’ provision in the 2009 Defamation Act. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

The jury in the case will be the first to assess damages under an ‘offer of amends’ provision in the 2009 Defamation Act. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

A jury asked to assess damages in a case by an Aer Lingus pilot against the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) over defamatory emails sent by the authority is expected to begin considering its decision on Thursday.

Mr Justice Bernard Barton is due on Thursday morning to give his charge to the jury hearing the case by Capt Padraig Higgins against the IAA.

The jury will be the first jury to assess damages under an “offer of amends” provision in the 2009 Defamation Act.

The IAA has already apologised for the defamation and offered to pay damages.

Because the parties were unable to reach agreement on the level of damages, a jury was asked to do so.

Capt Higgins, originally from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, and now living with this wife and five children in Thomastown, Enfield, Co Meath, is a senior Aer Lingus Airbus pilot.

He also flies single-engine aircraft in his spare time and is former vice-chair of the Irish Microlight Association.

The case arises from an incident in April 2013 when Capt Higgins’s newly acquired light aircraft had to make an emergency landing on rough ground near Swansea, Wales.

He was accompanied by another pilot and had ensured another microlight flying with him on the same journey landed safely first after they encountered an unexpected fog bank.

Hit a rock

Both aircraft landed safely but Capt Higgins’s plane damaged the nose wheel when it hit a rock.

As a result, he had to report it as an accident to the UK authorities and did so.

He had ensured, before leaving Ireland, all his papers and licence allowing him to fly in UK airspace were in order.

In June 2013, the first of the three defamatory emails was sent by the now retired IAA manager of general aviation, Capt John Steel, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

It spoke of “tracking down and contacting” the individuals involved in the Swansea incident and checking with gardaí and Revenue whether they had advised of the intended flights and had the required foreign permits.

In July 2013, Capt Steel sent a further email saying “we have a couple of issues to deal with this side of the Irish Sea so the two boys will not be getting away ‘scot free’”.

The court heard Capt Higgins was formally cautioned by the UK CAA on July 11th, 2013, in relation to four alleged offences, the most serious of which was that he did not hold the appropriate flight crew licence.

Less than three weeks later, the CAA wrote to him saying there will be no further inquiries “and the investigation will now be closed”.

Reputation

He sued claiming the emails meant, among other things, that he flew without a licence, was in breach of criminal and revenue law and put the safety of his own and his passenger’s life at risk. He said it caused him to suffer “enormous but incalculable damage to his reputation.”

In the apology read to the court last week, the IAA accepted the statements in the emails were unsubstantiated and caused Capt Higgins upset and reputational damage, acknowledged he was a person of high integrity who “did nothing to warrant this undesired attention” and agreed to pay damages and legal costs.

It was also agreed the apology would be sent to 13 named individuals, the Garda Commissioner and the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners.