Ryanair is suing three pilots over an email it said falsely inferred the airline had misled investors, facilitated insider dealing in shares by management and was guilty of market manipulation, writes Ann O'Loughlin
The airline said captains Evert Van Zwol, John Goss and Ted Murphy, of the Ryanair Pilots Group (RPG) maliciously circulated the email to 2,289 pilots in 2013.
Ryanair also claims it was part of an ongoing RPG effort to trade unionise its pilots and had come following similar false attacks on its safety record.
The three defendants deny defamation and said the words complained of do not mean what Ryanair says.
The words also have the benefit of qualified privilege whereby a statement published to someone with an interest in receiving such information is protected as long as it is not motivated by malice, they say.
The action opened today before a High Court jury and Mr Justice Bernard Barton.
In his opening address, Thomas Hogan SC, for Ryanair Holdings and Ryanair DAC, said the statement was published on September 12, 2013, under the heading "Pilot Update: what the markets are saying about Ryanair".
It stated Ryanair gave positive indications to investors the previous June which encouraged a share price increase followed up by a sell-off of shares by airline management, counsel said.
"That statement was factually incorrect," Mr Hogan said.
Ryanair says by publishing that incorrect statement, the defendants were saying, by innuendo or insinuation, that the airline misled investors, knowingly facilitated insider dealing by management, was guilty of market manipulation and conspired with management to abuse the markets, counsel said.
Ryanair had in May published its annual results for the end of that financial year (March 31, 2013) saying it had a very profitable year but saying the outlook for the coming year was cautious due to increased costs.
Shortly after those results were out, Ryanair chairman David Bondermansold 1.5 million shares in the airline he held in trust for his children.
Non-executive Ryanair director Michael Horgan sold 25,000 shares.
The sales were during the 28-day quarterly "window" period permitted by the stock market for those connected with a company can sell and the sales were notified to the airline by the men.
There were no meaningful fluctuations in the share price during the two week period in which they sold their shares, counsel said.
On September 4, Ryanair issued a trading update notifying investors that profits would come in at the lower end of what had been predicted but no indicators were given to allow management sell off shares.
After the RPG "Pilot Update" was sent the following week, Ryanair sought an apology and retraction from the defendants, as well as details of the RPG membership, but it was refused.
When proceedings were issued, the defendants sought to use the "shield" of the fact that the statement was published via a Dutch limited liability entitity called a "stichting", and that they were not personally liable, counsel said.
However, that defence has been withdrawn.
Only one of the the three, Captain Goss, was actually a Ryanair pilot and was dismissed for gross misconduct in August 2013, Mr Hogan said.
Captain Van Zwol worked for Ryanair competitor, KLM, while Captain Murphy is a retired Aer Lingus pilot.
In 2013, Goss and Van Zwol had participated in a 2013 Channel 4 programme about Ryanair safety standards and for which separate litigation was in train.
The reason the RPG was attacking Ryanair was to bring about unionisation of its pilots which the airline has always opposed, as is its legal right, counsel said.
By the time the Pilot Update was issued, the RPG had effectively changed tack and decided to go for financial propriety to try to "outcast management and set pilots against Ryanair to say 'we need to be unionised here guys, look what they are doing to us'", counsel said.
The case continues.