Pilot defamed by aviation regulator awarded €387,000

Pilot defamed by aviation regulator awarded €387,000
Padraig Higgins was defamed in emails sent by a senior manager in the Irish Aviation Authority.

A High Court jury has awarded €387,000 to Aer Lingus pilot Padraig Higgins against the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) over defamatory emails it sent in 2013.

It was the first jury to be asked to assess damages in a case where the defamation was admitted and an apology given.

It followed a Supreme Court decision last year which found juries could assess damages in cases where an “offer of amends” had been made.

In Mr Higgins’ case, the IAA’s apology and retraction came last Wednesday week at the outset of the assessment of damages hearing.

Yesterday, it took the jury more than three hours to decide general damages should be €300,000 and aggravated damages should be €130,000.

It found the defendant should be given a discount of 10% as a result of making the offer of amends, bringing a total award of €387,000.

In a statement afterwards, Mr Higgins said he was very happy it was all over, and that he can get on with his life.

He thanked the judge, Mr Justice Bernard Barton, and “the jury in particular, who listened and seemed to understand what I had gone through in the last six and a half years.”

Mr Higgins, of Enfield, Co Meath, is a senior Aer Lingus Airbus pilot who also flies single-engine aircraft in his spare time, and is former vice-chair of the Irish Microlight Association.

The case related to an incident in April 2013, when Mr Higgins’ newly-acquired light aircraft had to make an emergency landing on rough ground near Swansea, Wales.

He was accompanied by another pilot and had ensured another microlight flying with him on the same journey landed safely first after they encountered an unexpected fog bank.

Both aircraft landed safely — but the nose wheel of Mr Higgins’ plane was damaged when it hit a rock.

As a result, he had to report it as an accident to the UK authorities and did so, the court heard.

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

Subsequently however, in June, 2013, the first of the three defamatory emails was sent by now retired IAA manager of general aviation, John Steel, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

It spoke of “tracking down and contacting” the individuals involved in the Swansea incident and checking with gardaí and Revenue whether they had advised of the intended flights and had the required foreign permits.

Another of the emails from Mr Steel said “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 Mr Higgins 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.

Less than three weeks later, CAA wrote to him saying there will be no further enquiries “and the investigation will now be closed.”

He sued claiming the emails meant, among other things, he flew without a licence, was in breach of criminal and revenue law, and put the safety of his own and his passenger’s life at risk. He said it caused him to suffer “enormous but incalculable damage to his reputation.”

An offer of amends was first made by the IAA in 2015. It took until last week before an apology was agreed, and the jury was then asked to assess what damages should be.

Mr Justice Barton adjourned outstanding matters to next week and excused members of the jury from having to serve on the jury again for ten years.

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