Decision to overturn award to man branded ‘Traveller drug king’ incorrect

Martin McDonagh granted €900,000 damages against ‘Sunday World’ over 1999 story

 Martin McDonagh arriving at the Four Courts in 2015. Photograph: Collins

Martin McDonagh arriving at the Four Courts in 2015. Photograph: Collins

 

The Court of Appeal was incorrect in overturning a €900,000 damages award for defamation to a man branded a ‘Traveller drug king’ by a newspaper, the Supreme Court has ruled.

Martin McDonagh, Cranmore Drive, Sligo, was awarded the damages against the Sunday World in 2008 by a High Court jury and received a €90,000 payout as a condition of the paper being allowed to appeal.

The Sunday World denied libel and pleaded the article was true. It was published on September 5th, 1999, during Mr McDonagh’s seven day detention for questioning in connection with a seizure of IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August 1999 in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo.

Mr McDonagh denied any involvement in drugs and was ultimately released without charge.

In 2015, the Court of Appeal overturned the damages award after describing the jury verdict as “perverse” and finding Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer.

In relation to another allegation he was a “loan shark”, the appeal court found evidence in that regard was much more limited, it might have been open to a properly instructed jury to find for Mr McDonagh on that allegation and there should be a new trial on that issue.

Strong evidence

Mr McDonagh got leave to appeal to the Supreme Court which considered, among other issues, whether the appeal court could reverse a jury verdict of defamation even if that was arrived at in the face of strong evidence the defending allegation was true.

The seven-judge court on Wednesday agreed with judgments from Mr Justice William McKechnie and Mr Justice Peter Charleton in which both found the Court of Appeal decision was incorrect.

Chief Justice Susan Denham said the court would receive submissions from the sides as to whether the matter should be sent back to the High Court for a new hearing, in line with the Supreme Court findings, or whether damages could be dealt with by the Supreme Court.

In its verdict in 2008, the jury found Sunday Newspapers Ltd, publishers of the Sunday World, had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and therefore libelled him in the 1999 article.

In his judgment, Mr Justice McKechnie said the Court of Appeal judgment setting aside the jury verdict on the allegation of drug dealing, and imposing in lieu its own determination on the matter, cannot stand.

The Court of Appeal should not have set Mr McDonagh’s credibility at “zero”, in such a way as to suggest his reputation was not worthy of credit at any level, he said. The appeal court further erred in according “perhaps too much weight” to the “unchallenged” nature of Garda testimony regarding notes taken by officers during Mr McDonagh’s detention, he added.

Mr Justice Charleton, in his judgment, said the Court of Appeal order must be reversed in full and the court would hear submissions how the matter should now proceed.