Lawyer of the Month: Don McGann
When former League of Ireland footballer Michael Sheehan was awarded €505,000 in damages at the High Court last month, it was an unusual case on many levels.
Mr Sheehan claimed that he suffered injuries after he was pepper-sprayed and assaulted by members of An Garda Síochána. He said that, during the incident, he was arrested and assaulted by the gardaí, who he claimed used unreasonable force, had acted in a very aggressive manner and falsely imprisoned him.
His counsel Moira Flahive SC and Caroline Latham BL had been instructed by Don McGann of Alastair Purdy & Co Solicitors — who had once honed his forensic skills in a rather different field, that of environmental science after gaining a scholarship with the Tropical Biology Association.
More specifically, Mr McGann had studied tropical entomology in Tanzania for two months, and thereafter commenced a PhD in the area at Imperial College London.
Not a conventional career-change for the environmentally conscious law student and not, he laughs, the one for him.
Instead, the Tipperary native, who attended Rockwell College, returned to Ireland and — after a BSc (Hons) in environmental science at NUI Galway — gained his LLB (Hons) degree from the same university and qualified as a solicitor in 2010, practising in areas that include litigation, dispute resolution and investigations.
As reported in the daily press at the time, Mr Sheehan, from Athlone, claimed that arising from the incident, he suffered injuries to his face, head and back, and that he suffered from depression and insomnia because of what had happened.
In its defence, the State’s lawyers said that Mr Sheehan was arrested after two others in his company had been observed by gardaí causing a hazard to traffic and that he had acted aggressively toward the gardaí.
The case ran for several days and was heard before a civil jury presided over by Mr Justice Alexander Owens. After deliberating for just over an hour, the jury found that the gardaí had used excessive and unreasonable force in its dealing with Mr Sheehan.
The case was noteworthy, says Mr McGann, in that it was a civil jury trial against the State and members of An Garda Síochána, which arose out of events that had happened 11 years ago, and ran for six days.
“It was also a personal injury case, as ultimately damages were being sought by Mr Sheehan. However, the case was very personal for the client as he was making specific allegations against members of the gardaí about a traumatic incident that happened to him, in his own town, where he was a well-known individual,” he explains.
When it came, the jury’s award was particularly high. “Our client had given evidence and his GP gave evidence remotely, followed by the six members of An Garda Síochána.
“In my view there was no doubt that the case was going in one direction when the jurors asked the court for further guidance on the damages amount if they decided ‘yes’ to any of the issues before them.
“I felt at that stage it was a case of how much — and the verdict was a brilliant vindication for Mr Sheehan.”
Mr McGann’s career had commenced assisting the State Solicitor in County Galway West, with a traineeship at Kennedy Fitzgerald, prosecuting cases on behalf of the DPP, various government departments, the Revenue Commissioners and An Post. He also litigated complex injury cases for both the plaintiff and the defendant.
Working at Alastair Purdy & Co since 2018, he credits his interest in court work to those early days: “Mr Kennedy was my mentor. My first day in court was a District Court appeals day, when he suddenly said: ‘There’s a file on the chair behind you; pick it up because you’re on your way to Castlebar with counsel to run an internet defamation case.’
“I suppose that was my introduction to ‘real’ law, because while you learn the theory in college, it’s only when you get into a law office and the court that you realise what being a practising solicitor is all about.”
When he decided against continuing the rarefied studies tropical insects and took up his LLB — which was full-time study, though in the evenings, which allowed him to work his way through the degree — his intention was to pursue environmental law. However, his experience with the State Solicitor gave him an enthusiasm for litigation that has remained unabated.
This, he says, particularly involves interactions with employers, from inception through to defending an employment law action in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) or Labour Court, and subsequent bullying or workplace health and safety actions in the Circuit or High Court.
“I’ve always enjoys enjoyed litigation and I’ve always stuck to the areas of law which involve court work — that’s where I get my kick from the job,” he says.
He continues to advise a variety of insurers, UK underwriters, self-insured business in the food industry, financial sector, aviation and the bar and nightclub industry — and clearly thrives on the diversity of the portfolio.
Mr McGann had started a family while studying law and commuted on an almost daily basis for nine months to the Law Society in Dublin while studying for his indentures of apprenticeship, so it was never his intention to work at one of the big firms in the city. “I’m a firmly family-focused person and have always been happy to live and work in Galway,” he says.
Life outside the day job is “pretty normal”: running, cycling and coaching young people, including his own children, as well as relaxing with friends with the occasional board games night.
There is a collegiate atmosphere among lawyers where he works, he says, though for him that is as likely to be in Waterford or Limerick as Galway itself. “There’s a good network in these areas and you can ring someone up to run something past them, perhaps more so than in the big city firms where the competition is more intense.”
Taking his career in a full circle from the day William Kennedy sent him off on that internet defamation case, he and the team at Alastair Purdy & Co specialise in advising businesses in employment and corporate law, and the growing area of data protection and protected disclosures.
Looking back at May’s successful result and the large award to Mr Sheehan, he concedes that while he is always keen to be in court, the law can move slowly.
“But the courts do the best they can within the system — and I know that the court staff in Galway do a great job,” Mr McGann says. Despite his self-effacing appreciation of others, one suspects he does a great job himself. As he would no doubt have done as a tropical entomologist — which would have been another story entirely.