by David Phelan March-22-2022 in Litigation & Dispute Resolution, Media Law

A recent Supreme Court decision involves an important and interesting analysis by the Court of a number of aspects of defamation law in Ireland, particularly relating to the level of awards of damages in defamation claims.

The Background

The case was taken by an Aer Lingus pilot regarding a number of defamatory emails sent about him by the Irish Aviation Authority (“IAA”). 

When Captain Higgins’ claim was heard in the High Court in front of a jury, the jury awarded him general damages of €300,000 plus aggravated damages of €130,000 with the overall award reduced by 10% to take account of an offer of amends to Captain Higgins which had been made by the IAA.  

The IAA appealed, and in June 2020 the Court of Appeal found the award of damages by the jury in the High Court to have been excessive.  The Court of Appeal substituted its own assessment of damages, which was €70,000 general damages plus €15,000 aggravated damages, again with an overall reduction of 10% to take account of the offer of amends.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In its recent decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Appeal taken by Captain Higgins against the Court of Appeal Judgment, by way of a 4 to 1 majority. The Supreme Court substituted in its own award of €175,000 by way of general damages, €50,000 aggravated damages and a similar 10% discount for the offer of amends.  This resulted in an overall award of damages to Captain Higgins by the Supreme Court of €202,500. 

Each of the 5 Judges of the Supreme Court who heard the case issued a Judgment.  The majority Judgment was given by Mr Justice MacMenamin, and the one dissenting Judgment by Mr Justice Hogan.

In his dissenting Judgment, Mr Justice Hogan concluded that in this case, Captain Higgins should be awarded general damages of €100,000, aggravated damages of €15,000, giving a sum of €115,000 which should be reduced by 10% to €103,500.

Between them, the various Judgments involve consideration of a number of important issues regarding defamation law in Ireland. The issues considered include the role of the jury in defamation cases, the directions to be given by a trial Judge to the jury, the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeal, interpretation of the offer of amends procedure and the statutory defences to defamation claims, amongst others.  

Awards of Damages Generally

Perhaps of most interest, and what we will focus on here, was the consideration by the Supreme Court of the level of damages in defamation claims generally. 

Mr Justice MacMenamin said that the case law over the years illustrates broadly that general damages awards can be seen as falling within 4 general categories or brackets, when it comes to the level of damages.

He said that the first and lowest category applies to a very moderate defamation, where awards of €0 to €50,000 have been made.  The second category is for a medium (range) of cases, where awards have varied from €50,000 to €125,000.  The third category involves seriously defamatory material and he said the bracket range is from €125,000 to €199,000. The highest of the four categories in the general scale involved cases at, or in excess of, €200,000 but where Courts have seldom awarded more than €300,000.

Mr Justice MacMenamin said that as well as these four general categories, there are exceptional cases. He referenced as examples the defamation claims taken in previous years by Proinsias de Rossa and Monica Leech, where the Court and Jury had to assess very real damage to an individual’s reputation where the balance tilted decisively in favour of indication of good name. 

Mr Justice MacMenamin went on to indicate that although those broad categories could be identified, they are not written in stone.  He said that the identification of the categories are observations which might be of assistance to Courts in dealing with the difficult territory of assessment of damages in defamation claims.  He noted that whilst in law, every case depends on its own fact, that observation is particularly valid in defamation claims. 

A number of the Judgments, including the majority Judgment, involved affirmation of the role of juries in assessing damages in defamation claims.  Publication of the Judgments followed only days after the Government made various proposals to reform Ireland’s defamation laws, including the abolition of juries in High Court defamation cases.  Other measures recommended involve the introduction of a requirement for “serious harm” in certain cases, and the introduction of a statutory obligation that the parties in any defamation claim must consider mediation.  

For further information on this decision or to discuss any of the issues raised, please contact David Phelan at Hayes solicitors LLP. 

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