Ryanair loses defamation case against three pilots

Jury finds 2013 email did mean airline was guilty of market manipulation but no malice proved

Ryanair has lost its High Court action for defamation against three pilots.

A jury found a September 2013 email “Pilot update: what the markets are saying about Ryanair” did mean the airline was guilty of market manipulation.

However, in their majority verdict of nine or more, they found Ryanair had not proved malice by the three defendants, Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy.

As the court had found the update was published on an occasion of qualified privilege, which is only lost where malice is proven, there was no defamation.


Mr Justice Bernard Barton, on the application of Paul O’Higgins SC, for the defendants, dismissed the case and granted costs. He put a stay on the costs in the event of an appeal following an application from Thomas Hogan SC, for Ryanair.

The defendants were congratulated by friends and family who had attended court.

In a statement, Ryanair said: “We welcome the jury’s decision that the RPG statements were defamatory. We are disappointed with the ruling on malice and have instructed our lawyers to immediately appeal.”

The jury, of nine men and two women (one member was lost on the final day due to illness) had been deliberating from 10.30am on Thursday to just before 6pm.

Ryanair brought its case against the three who are members of the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG) interim council, as publishers of the update which went to 2,289 Ryanair pilots.

They denied defamation and denied the meaning attributed to the words of the update by Ryanair.

They also said the words had the benefit of qualified privilege whereby a statement published to someone with an interest in receiving such information is protected as long as it is not motivated by malice.

The airline claimed that by publishing that incorrect statement, the defendants were saying, by innuendo or insinuation, the airline misled investors, knowingly facilitated insider dealing by management, was guilty of market manipulation and conspired with management to abuse the markets.

Market manipulation

While the jury answered yes to the question of whether the update meant Ryanair was guilty of market manipulation, it said no to questions that it meant the airline had misled investors, knowingly facilitated insider dealing by managers or that Ryanair conspired with managers to abuse the market for its shares.

The court was told Ryanair had in May published its annual results for the end of that financial year (March 31st, 2013) saying it had a very profitable year but saying the outlook for the coming year was cautious due to increased costs.

Shortly after those results were out, Ryanair chairman David Bonderman sold 1.5 million shares in the airline that he held in trust for his children. Non-executive Ryanair director Michael Horgan sold 25,000 share options.

The sales were during the 28-day quarterly “window” period permitted by the stock market where those connected with a company can sell and the sales were notified to the airline by the men. There were no meaningful fluctuations in the share price during the two-week period in which they sold their shares, Ryanair said.

On September 4th, 2013, Ryanair issued a trading update notifying investors that profits would come in at the lower end of what had been predicted but no indicators were given to allow management sell off shares.

Apology and retraction

After the RPG “Pilot Update” was sent the following week, Ryanair sought an apology and retraction from the defendants, as well as details of the RPG membership, but it was refused.

Ryanair said the RPG published the update as part of its campaign to bring about unionisation of its pilots which the airline has always opposed, as is was its legal right. It was an attempt to “outcast management” and set pilots against management, it said.

The case, which went on for seven weeks, heard evidence for the Ryanair side from its chief executive Michael O’Leary, director of HR strategy and operations, Darrell Hughes, its chief financial officer, Neil Sorahan, and Brian O’Loughlin, a professional investment adviser.

The three defendants also gave evidence. While all three were members of the RPG, John Goss, who spent most of his career with Ryanair, was the only one who worked for it before he was dismissed in 2013 — a couple of months before his retirement — over an interview he gave to Channel 4.

There was evidence from former Ryanair pilots, Italy-based Paolo Cova and Belgium-based Jean Francois Claes. There was also evidence from Martin Duffy, a former Ryanair pilot, who was a consultant to the RPG and who found an email in his records during the trial which had not be produced before it and which the airline said was indicative of the intention behind the pilot update.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times