IAA tried to settle dispute over incident investigation with pilot, High Court told
Captain Paddy Higgins asked Irish Aviation Authority for emails on emergency landing
Captain Padraig Higgins at the Four Courts. Photograph: Collins Courts
The Irish Aviation Authority’s company secretary has told the High Court she did her best to ensure a data request from an airline pilot suing the IAA was handled correctly.
Aideen Gahan said the IAA had tried to find all data it held about Captain Padraig Higgins on communications about an investigation into an incident he was involved in when his single-engine aircraft had to make an emergency landing after it encountered an unexpected bank of fog near Swansea in 2013.
Capt Higgins sought the material after the UK Civil Aviation Authority found his paperwork for flying in UK airspace was fully in order for the flight and he had no case to answer.
The court was told the IAA “stonewalled” his request for data about the matter but in a similar request to the UK CAA, he was given material which included three emails from now-retired IAA manager of general aviation, Capt John Steel, which defamed Capt Higgins.
An apology was given by the IAA to Capt Higgins in court last week and a jury has been asked to decide damages.
When Capt Higgins became suspicious that unfounded accusations had been made against him, he made enquiries and received one page of data material from the IAA.
He said the UK CAA sent him 100 pages of “everything I did not get from the IAA”, including the defamatory emails. Giving evidence for the IAA on Tuesday, Ms Gahan was asked by Oisín Quinn SC, for the IAA, what she had to say to criticism from Capt Higgins that his data-protection request was not handled correctly.
She said she “did my best to ensure this was handled correctly” and, when such requests come in, they do their best to find all the appropriate data.
She said, when Capt Steel, who sent the emails, was asked to check his computer, he told her, due to the volume of material received by him, he had to conduct a regular clear out of his inbox to prevent it becoming full.
Ms Gahan, who is also a solicitor, said the IAA took a decision at the highest level in 2015 to make an offer of amends to Capt Higgins, to include an apology and damages, so they could move away from the very adversarial approach there had been.
Asked about Capt Higgins’s claim the offer was “cynical”, she said it was a genuine attempt to reach a settlement that was fair and recognise the desire of the parties to maintain a good relationship.
Asked by Thomas Hogan SC, for Capt Higgins, if she agreed the handling of the defamatory emails by Capt Steel was wholly inadequate, she said it would appear the emails were just being “fired on” when they were sent.
She agreed, following the 2015 offer of amends, that Capt Higgins had offered to meet with the IAA side, but the response was the IAA did “not see any merit” in attending such a meeting.
She agreed the IAA’s lawyers, A&L Goodbody, had also said that if he rejected the offer of amends, the case would go to court.
When counsel suggested the IAA “hunkered down”, she said she did not think that was the intention. The intention was to move it along but it was the lawyers who managed that process, she said.
She disagreed the theme running through the IAA’s approach was that, only when its back was against the wall, did it do anything.
Capt Niall Cummins, who took over from Capt Steel in 2015, said, when the defamatory emails were brought to his attention that same year, he thought immediately “you cannot say that about somebody” and felt they were “very clumsy and went out without too much thought”.
The case continues on Wednesday.