Level of damages to be decided as Aer Lingus pilot gets apology over defamatory emails

Level of damages to be decided as Aer Lingus pilot gets apology over defamatory emails
Captain Padraig Higgins pictured at the Four Courts today. Photo: Collins Courts

The Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has apologised to an Aer Lingus Airbus pilot for false and defamatory statements in emails it circulated internally and to its UK counterpart six years ago.

A High Court jury is now being asked to determine damages payable to Captain Padraig Higgins, who the apology said was "a person of high personal and professional integrity."

The case arose after Capt. 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 a wheel was damaged when it hit a rock.

Capt. Higgins was on his way back with a fellow pilot to Ireland from Exeter in England with his newly acquired aircraft when the incident occurred. He had ensured before leaving that all his papers and licence allowing him to fly in UK airspace were in order.

In his statement of claim alleging defamation, it is alleged that in June 2013, the first of three emails was sent by John Steel, IAA manager of general aviation standards, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK's Civil Aviation Authority.

The first spoke of "tracking down and contacting" the individuals involved in the incident and checking with gardaí and Revenue whether they had advised of the intended flights and had the required foreign permits.

Mr Steel followed it up with another email saying he understood Capt. Higgins' "microlight rating" was valid only in Ireland. In July, Mr Steel sent a further email saying "we have a couple of issues to deal with this side of the Irish Sea so the two boys will not be getting away 'scot free'".

The court heard Capt. Higgins' papers were fully in order and that he had informed the UK Air Accident Investigation Branch immediately of the incident. He was formally cautioned by the UK CAA on July 11, 2013, in relation to four alleged offences, the most serious of which was that he did not hold the appropriate flight crew licence.

By July 29, 2019, all the allegations were rebutted and the CAA wrote saying there will be no further inquiries "and the investigation will now be closed".

In the apology read out by Oisin Quinn SC, for the IAA, it stated the IAA published several statements in 2013 which it was accepted were unsubstantiated and caused Capt. Higgins upset and reputational damage.

It acknowledged he was a person of high integrity who "did nothing to warrant this undesired attention".

The IAA acknowledges Capt. Higgins' role in contributing to improvements in air safety.

It retracted all defamatory statements and "apologises unreservedly for this episode and regrets the length of time it took to reach a resolution".

It also agreed to pay damages and legal costs.

Under an "offer of amends" provision in the 2009 Defamation Act, where there is no agreement on the offer, a jury is asked to decide what it should be.

After the apology was agreed today, the case in relation to damages opened before Mr Justice Bernard Barton and a jury.

Thomas Hogan SC, for Capt. Higgins, said as well as being a senior pilot in Aer Lingus, his passion in his spare time is to fly two-seater microlights. He is a former vice-chair of the Irish Microlight Association and had a role in establishing the voluntary General Aviation Safety Council of Ireland.

In that role, he dealt with the IAA and that relationship became somewhat strained as the microlight association felt it was being overlooked by the IAA in its campaign for better safety and certification.

Mr Hogan said after the UK air accident branch said the incident in Swansea was closed, Capt. Higgins was confused and suspicious because these unfounded accusations had been made against him. He made inquiries with the IAA and was stonewalled, counsel said.

But the UK CAA was very forthcoming and provided him with the information which led to him becoming aware of the defamatory emails.

Counsel said the apology did not come until six-and-a-half years and it was his client's case that the IAA conduct had aggravated the defamation.

The case continues.

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