Supreme Court: Appellate Court incorrect to overturn Jury’s finding of fact in defamation case



A seven-judge Supreme Court has unanimously found that that the Court of Appeal was incorrect to overturn a High Court jury’s finding of fact in a defamation case against the Sunday World. In 2008, after a 5-day trial, a jury had found that the defendant Newspaper had not proved that the defamed plaintiff was a drug-dealer, and assessed damages in the sum of €900K in relation to the impugned publication.

The Court of Appeal overturned this verdict and ordered that the damages be repaid, however in a judgment with which all seven Justices concurred, Mr Justice Peter Charleton found that the Court of Appeal was incorrect to overturn this finding of fact.

Background

In this defamation case, the central allegation by the Sunday Newspapers Limited, was that Mr Martin McDonagh was actively part of a gang which imported about €500,000 worth of drugs - ecstasy and cannabis resin - into Co. Sligo, in an operation intercepted by the Gardaí in 1999.

Two men were arrested and later convicted of this.

While the jury in the High Court found that the newspaper had not proven at trial that Mr McDonagh was criminally involved in drug dealing, the Court of Appeal overturned that verdict and, furthermore, found as a matter of fact that he was.

As such, the principle issue for consideration by the Supreme Court concerned the role of an appellate court in reversing findings of fact and substituting its own ruling in place of a trial court’s determination.

The impugned publication

Mr McDonagh was the subject of the front-page article in an issue of the Sunday World in September 1999. He was, at that time, under arrest in Sligo and was being questioned by detectives on suspicion of drug smuggling in consequence of a very large seizure in Sligo.

Under the banner headline “TRAVELLER IS NEW DRUGS KING”, and, referring to Mr it announced “The Shark is arrested as huge haul of hash and ecstasy is found”.

Apparently based on informed sources, which Justice Charleton characterised as “irresponsible members of the Gardaí who leaked information to the press”, it described Mr McDonagh as “one of Ireland’s top drug dealers”, “a violent moneylender”, a man with no “visible means of income”, but with “a series of convictions”, and leading “a lavish lifestyle”.

High Court

The evidence at the trial in the High Court consisted of that of Mr McDonagh, his daughter who testified as to his upset at the publication, two character witnesses, a publican and a lecturer.

The newspaper’s case was based largely on the evidence of several detective Gardaí who had interviewed Mr McDonagh.

After a 5-day High Court trial, the jury retired with a series of questions settled by Justice deValera.

The jury found that the Newspaper had not proved that Mr McDonagh was a drug-dealer, or a loan shark. Notwithstanding findings that the paper had proved that he was a tax-evader and a criminal, the jury assessed the damages to be €900,000 plus costs

Accordingly, the jury found for Mr McDonagh, and Justice deValera made an order accordingly.

Court of Appeal

The newspaper appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Integral to judgment of the Court of Appeal was the constitutional claim to freedom of expression asserted in the newspaper’s defence

The Court of Appeal was also of the view that there would always be an entitlement, once something was true, to disseminate that information as part of the guarantee enacted by the people in Article 40.6.1º of the Constitution of “liberty for the exercise of … the right of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.”

The Court purported to find as a fact contrary to the conclusion of the tribunal of fact – i.e. the jury – which had heard and seen all the witnesses over 5 days.

The Court of Appeal ordered:

  1. that the appeal be allowed against the entirety of the verdict and that the said High Court order be set aside; and that Mr McDonagh’s claim for defamation due to the drug dealing allegation be dismissed; and that Mr McDonagh’s claim in relation to the loan sharking allegation be remitted to the High Court for retrial…
  2. that Mr McDonagh do pay to Sunday Newspapers the costs of the appeal and two-thirds of the costs in the High Court …
  3. that Mr McDonagh do repay to Sunday Newspapers the sum of €900,000 which was paid out on foot of said High Court order

In effect, the Court of Appeal overturned the verdict of the jury that Mr McDonagh was not a drug dealer.

In dismissing Mr McDonagh’s claim for defamation on that score, the Court found as a fact that he was a drug dealer – consequently, he had no entitlement to damages.

Supreme Court

The issues certified for appeal in the Supreme Court:

  1. whether it is open to the Court of Appeal to reverse a jury verdict that a statement was defamatory of Mr McDonagh arrived at even in the face of strong evidence to the effect that the defending allegation was true;
  2. whether the media have a constitutional right to publish material, and that this right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict to the effect that such material was defamatory of Mr McDonagh;
  3. whether the Court of Appeal is entitled to reverse the verdict of the jury because it was perverse, if some other alternative explanation was open to the jury.

Delivering the judgment of the Supreme Court, Mr Justice Peter Charleton found that the Court of Appeal was incorrect in the order which it made – and held that this order must be reversed in full.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News