High Court found to have erred in Rugby Club assault case, twelve years after decision

The Court of Appeal has found that the High Court erred in its interpretation of the facts in a case brought by a woman against the trustees of a rugby club in which she was assaulted.

Ms Rowena Lynch brought the case against Patrick Cooney and Trevor Winckworth, in their capacity as trustees of Mullingar Rugby Club, in respect of an assault she suffered while attending a discotheque at the Club on 30 November 1997.

The essence of her case had been that while attending the disco, she was assaulted within the Club by a Mr Paul Jordan, when she intervened to stop him assaulting her brother.

She contended that Mr Jordan violently kneed her in the face and that at least two of the three security guards in attendance looked on as this occurred, before forcibly frogmarching her out of the club. She claimed that she was refused entry back into the club and none of the security guards were prepared to summon an ambulance.

It appeared to have been accepted in the High Court that the plaintiff would be entitled to succeed in her action against the defendant trustees if her account that these events occurred within the Club’s premises were to be accepted as correct.

During the High Court case, a number of individuals in addition to the plaintiff provided testimony, and gave differing accounts of the events.

A Mr Kenneth McDermott gave evidence that the assault had occurred within the rugby club. He claimed that the security guards had advanced warning that a fight was going to occur, that Ms Lynch had been assaulted on the premises, and then went outside, where it was possible more fighting occurred.

One of the security guards, Mr Martin Fagan, stated that he had broken up a fight between two males within the club, at which time he saw the plaintiff kick Mr Jordan in the groin. He had escorted Mr Jordan from the premises, before returning inside.

He submitted that Ms Lynch had looked okay when she was being escorted from the premises by the other security guards, but that he did not see her being assaulted outside either.

Finally, another security guard, Mr Oliver McCaffrey, gave evidence that he escorted the plaintiff from the premises after seeing her throw a punch. Later, when he checked the car park, he was informed that she had been hurt and called an ambulance.

The High Court judge Butler J found that Mr Fagan’s evidence was corroborated by Mr McCaffrey’s. While finding that Mr McDermott was telling the truth, he rejected his evidence.

He thus found that “While I entirely accept that she is injured, I do not think that she has gone anyway to satisfy the onus of proof as a matter of probability… Mr Fagan, with the protection of the club, intervened as soon as practicable and with no forewarning. It is a straight issue of fact. On that basis, I am sorry to say that the plaintiff fails.”

Delivering the Court of Appeal judgment, Mr Justice Gerard Hoganobserved that the twelve year delay between the initial decision and this appeal had not been in the interests of the litigants, or the proper administration of justice.

Turning to the case, he cited the case of Hay v. O’Grady 1 I.R. 210, in which the Supreme Court found that “the findings of fact made by the trial judge are supported by credible evidence, this Court is bound by those findings.”

However, he also cited the case of Doyle v. Banville IESC 25, which noted that it was important that a “judgment engages with the key elements of the case made by both sides and explains why one or other side is preferred. Where, as here, a case turns on very minute questions of fact as… clearly the judgment must analyse the case made for the competing versions of those facts and come to a reasoned conclusion as to why one version of those facts is to be preferred.”

In that case, the trial judge had found that he accepted “in full” the accounts of two witnesses, yet they had given very different accounts. The Supreme Court found that this “was not a mere tangential error, but one which related to a point of some significance in the case”.

The Court ruled that this error was one of two errors on the part of the trial judge which justified the Court setting aside the ruling of the trial judge and directing a fresh trial.

Applying the principles of that case to the current facts, Justice Hogan noted that Butler J had accepted that Mr McDermott was a “significant” witness who was telling the truth, yet rejected his evidence.

Justice Hogan found that “the trial judge could not on the one hand say that he was satisfied with the truthful nature of the evidence of a significant witness, while proceeding to reject that evidence in its entirety on the other. To that extent, therefore, the trial judge fell into error by being inconsistent in his conclusions.”

Furthermore, Butler J’s finding that Mr McCaffrey’s evidence corroborated Mr Fagan’s was an error, as their evidence was not consistent with one another in a number of respects.

Finally, it was noted that the trial judge had made little mention of the plaintiff’s own evidence. More particularly, the ruling did not explain how the plaintiff was in fact assaulted if that assault did not occur within the club premises.

It was found that the fact that there was no direct evidence at all of this happening outside the club was surely a factor which had to be weighed in the balance if the judge was to engage properly with the evidence. The fact that this exercise was not performed by the trial judge was an error of law which would justify the Court intervening to set aside this finding of fact.

Thus, Justice Hagan concluded: “I fear that there is no course open to this Court other than one which would involves the remittal of this case to the High Court for a complete re-trial.”

  • by Rachel Killean for Irish Legal News
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