The Sunday World has urged the Court of Appeal to overturn a €900,000 damages award made to a man after a jury found he was libelled in an article describing him as a “Traveller drug king”
Martin McDonagh has been paid €90,000 of the €900,000 award, made in 2008, pending the outcome of the newspaper’s appeal.
Having heard arguments from both sides, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, sitting with Ms Justice Mary Irvine and Mr Justice Gerard Hogan, said the court was reserving judgment.
Mr McDonagh (45), Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5th, 1999, describing him as a “Traveller drug king”.
It was published mid-way through his seven-day detention for questioning in connection with a major drug seizure at Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. Mr McDonagh, who has always denied involvement in drugs, was ultimately released without charge.
The newspaper denied libel and pleaded justification and that the contents of the article were true.
The jury found the newspaper had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark but had proven he was a tax evader and a criminal.
In its appeal, presented by Eoin McCullough SC, the Sunday World argued the jury’s findings were perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence before it, including from a series of Garda witnesses.
The amount of the award was “excessive and disproportionate” and the court should bear in mind the “chilling” effect on journalism of high libel awards, he also argued.
The previous comparable maximum figure was €400,000 awarded to former politician Prionsias de Rossa, he said. If the court upheld the jury verdict, any award should be assessed by reference to that maximum and scaled down because this libel was less serious than either the De Rossa case or that of public relaitons consultant Monica Leech. Her €1.87m award was last year reduced by the Supreme Court to €1.25m, of which a substantial part related to the impact on Ms Leech's business, he added.
Submitting the jury verdict was perverse, counsel said it was “crucial” that several Garda witnesses who testified were not cross examined over statements made by Mr McDonagh in Garda custody.
“No reasonable jury, if they accepted the statements, could have come to any conclusion other than the plaintiff was involved in drug dealing.”
He also submitted the jury failed to answer a question, question two, on the issue paper and this was tantamount to “jury misconduct”. Question two had to be answered before the jury could answer question three concerning the assessment of damages, he argued.
Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, said the gravity of this libel was worse than in the case of Ms Leech. Calling someone a drug dealer was about the worst thing anyone can say about a person and the article had a “devastating” effect on his client.
Mr McDonagh had also, in evidence, denied he made cetrain statements in custody.
The jury found the defence had not proved his client was a drug dealer and the appeal court should interfere with that only in the most extreme circumstances, he submitted. This article was written two or three days into a seven-day detention, dealt with the matters at issue in minute detail and was clearly leaked to the paper by gardai, he argued.
Counsel agreed his client made frank admissions of being a tax cheat and engaging in social welfare fraud but argued it would be wrong and inappropriate to overturn the jury verdict on the basis of such matters. He accepted, as a statement of law, damages to be made to a person with an unblemished reputation would be larger than a person with a blemished one.
It was not helpful to asess damages in defamation cases according to standsrd of awards in person injury cases, counsel said.
Mr Doyle also argued the court should accept the jury must, by implication, have answered question two as they could not have proceeded to assess damages otherwise.
In reply, Mr McCullough said it was impermissible for Mr Doyle to attack the credibility of garda witnesses now when there was no cross-examination concerning their credibility in the original case.