Court told apology from Irish Aviation Authority 'six-and-a-half years too late'

Court told apology from Irish Aviation Authority 'six-and-a-half years too late'
Padraig Higgins.

An apology from the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) over defamatory emails it sent came six-and-a-half years too late, Aer Lingus pilot Padraig Higgins told the High Court today.

The IAA's apology was approved by the court earlier this week in advance of a hearing in relation to what damages Captain Higgins, an Aer Lingus Airbus pilot, should get.

The damages are to be assessed by a jury which today was told by Oisin Quinn SC, for the IAA, his client was "very sorry" for what had happened and had made efforts since 2015 to resolve the matter when it made a formal "offer of amends" of the defamation.

The case arose after Captain Higgins was involved in an incident in April 2013 when his single-engine microlight aircraft, which he uses in his spare time, had to make an emergency landing on rough ground near Swansea, Wales. It landed safely but the nose-wheel and propeller were damaged when it hit a rock.

He had ensured before leaving that all his papers and license allowing him to fly in UK airspace were in order.

In June, 2013, the first of three defamatory emails over the incident was sent by John Steel, IAA manager of general aviation standards, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK's Civil Aviation Authority. Even though the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had found Captain Higgins had been properly licensed and had no case to answer, the last IAA email spoke of there being still "a couple of issues" and Captain Higgins and his fellow pilot "will not be getting away 'scot-free'".

Cross-examined by Mr Quinn today, Captain Higgins agreed the delays in the case getting to court were not the fault of the IAA and that the apology given this week was genuine.

Captain Higgins said when he previously said he would have been happy with small damages, that was in relation to July 2013 when it was found there was no basis for the allegations against him, notwithstanding that they should never have happened.

He accepted the IAA was very sorry, that it was a mistake and a defamation, but it was "a bit too late, it is six-and-a-half years too late."

The offer of amends was made in 2015 but it was not possible to agree the terms including the texts of four draft apologies offered, the court heard.

The IAA then applied for a High Court judge to deal with the offer of amends.

There followed over the next two years litigation in relation to whether a judge sitting alone or a jury should decide the damages. This was ultimately decided last year by the Supreme Court which found the law required a jury should do so.

Captain Higgins said he was "terrified" over the legal costs he might have to pay in relation to that judge or jury case.

If he lost, the costs would have bankrupted him "and we would not be here today."

Asked by Mr Quinn did he see this as the State attacking him, he said:

It is a State authority with a lot of money in the bank and unlimited resources with no accountability and no one was held to account.

He felt what happened to him was similar to other well-publicised cases where a State body is "kicking an ordinary person around" because they don't like them.

Captain Higgins agreed that in each of the draft apologies offered in 2015 and 2016, it was acknowledged the emails were false and defamatory. However, difficulties arose because of the wording of the apology and also about who the apology would be circulated to.

When the IAA said it would circulate it to the gardaí and Revenue, who had been mentioned in one of the defamatory emails, Captain Higgins wanted to know the names of those officials. When he sought them, he said the IAA accused him of doing this to try to inflate the value of his claim against it.

Mr Quinn also put it to him that based on his own evidence, it had not affected his career in Aer Lingus. Captain Higgins said it had not affected him monetarily but it had made him more cautious and not as relaxed as he had been.

Asked if his view of the IAA had been clouded, he did not think so. "I don't see any evidence to say anything has changed," he said.

Retired Aer Lingus Captain Ted Murphy, who won awards for his work on aviation safety, said the allegations made against Captain Higgins were extremely serious for any pilot.

The case resumes on Tuesday.

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