High Court: Former MMA fighter fails in application to restrain Conor McGregor from describing him as ‘a rat’
The High Court has refused an application by a former sparring partner and friend of Conor McGregor seeking to restrain Mr McGregor from describing him as “a rat”. The plaintiff claimed that the insult meant that he was an informer and a person who betrays another. The application was brought pursuant to section 33 of the Defamation Act 2009.
About this case:
- Citation: IEHC 724
- Court:High Court
- Judge:Mr Justice Garrett Simons
Delivering judgment in the case, Mr Justice Simons held that he was not satisfied that the statements were clearly defamatory and that the reasonable reader would not understand the word “rat” to have the meaning claimed by the plaintiff. Instead, the reasonable reader would see the tweets “as part of a rant by a ‘trash talking’ MMA fighter”.
Mr McGregor is an internationally known MMA fighter. The plaintiff, Mr Artem Lobov, was a former friend and sparring partner of Mr McGregor for years. However, the parties fell out over whether Mr Lobov was entitled to a five percent share of the profits from the sale of Proper 12 Whiskey in which Mr McGregor had a stake.
In November 2022, Mr Lobov issued High Court proceedings against Mr McGregor for his alleged share of the profits. Following these proceedings, Mr McGregor began to publish certain statements on Twitter relating to Mr Lobov.
Amongst other statements, Mr McGregor described the plaintiff as a rat. The plaintiff’s solicitor wrote to Mr McGregor’s solicitor claiming that this meant the plaintiff was “an informer; a person who has betrayed somebody; a person who reveals confidential information; and a person who double crosses”. However, the letter did not reference any extrinsic facts which might affect the meaning of the tweet.
Mr McGregor continued to insult the plaintiff in tweets. Over the next three weeks, the plaintiff was described as ““uncooked sausage”; a “fanny”; a “little blouse”; a “fucking shit”; a “little jonny head”; a “fuckin jackass”; a “fucking rat”; a “coat tailing rat cunt”; and a “fuckin turn coat prick”.
Mr Lobov issued defamation proceedings on 20 December 2022 and made an ex parte application for orders restraining the publication of the allegedly defamatory statements prior to the trial of the action. This application was refused but the plaintiff was given leave to issue a motion for relief pursuant to section 33 of the 2009 Act which was returnable on 22 December 2022.
The plaintiff only issued a plenary summons in which he sought damages for inter alia intimidation, conspiracy and breach of constitutional rights. At the injunction hearing, Mr Lobov’s main issue centred on Mr McGregor’s statement that he was a rat.
Mr Justice Garrett Simons began by considering the legal test under section 33 of the Act. The court noted that such applications required a judge to reach an opinion on the defamatory nature of a statement which was usually reserved for a jury. The court held that the words used must bear a clear defamatory meaning before a section 33 application could succeed.
Further, the court had to examine the evidence adduced by a defendant and be satisfied that there was no defence to the action. Even if these preconditions were met, the court retained a discretion whether to grant or refuse the application. Mr Justice Simons noted that the courts were traditionally reluctant to restrain free speech in advance of a trial (Beaumont Hospital Board v. O’Doherty  IEHC 469).
The court held that there were two unsatisfactory aspects to the plaintiff’s application. First, the plaintiff had not delivered a statement of claim, which was a “significant omission” given that the tweets were “not, on their ordinary and natural meaning, defamatory”. The court held that it was “most unsatisfactory” that Mr Lobov sought to restrain a publication on a summary basis without delivering a statement of claim.
Further, the court held that it was not satisfactory that the plaintiff had not sworn an affidavit in the application. The explanation that Mr Lobov was in Spain on holiday was not a good reason since the interlocutory application was threatened four weeks prior to the hearing.
In applying the legal test, the court held that the “rat” statement was not clearly defamatory. The insult did not injure Mr Lobov’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society without more context, the court said. Further, it was not appropriate to parse through the meaning of a tweet compared to, for example, a newspaper article (Stocker v. Stocker  UKSC 17).
In this case, the statement occurred in a context of two MMA fighters where “trash talking” was part of their competitive lives. In the context of the other insults used by Mr McGregor, the court was not satisfied that the reasonable reader would understand “rat” to have the meaning claimed by the plaintiff.
The court said: “It is far more likely that the hypothetical reasonable reader would view the tweets as part of a rant by a ‘trash talking’ MMA fighter. As appears, the term ‘rat’ is merely one of a series of pejorative terms applied to the plaintiff. Indeed, it is not necessarily even the most insulting.”
Mr Justice Simons noted that he was not asked to impute any knowledge of the contractual dispute between Mr Lobov and Mr McGregor or to determine that the term “rat” referred to the conduct of the plaintiff in the contractual dispute.
In isolation, the insult was “no more than a term of vulgar abuse” and context was essential for the plaintiff to establish injury to reputation (Talbot v. Hermitage Golf Club  IESC 57).
The plaintiff failed to persuade the court that Mr McGregor’s tweets were clearly defamatory and therefore failed to discharge the test outlined in section 33 of the 2209 Act.
Artem Lobov v Conor McGregor  IEHC 724