By Ann O'Loughlin
The Supreme Court is to hear further submissions on whether a defamation action in which a man was awarded €900,000 should go back for a full jury re-trial or whether the court itself could assess damages.
Last month, a seven-judge Supreme Court overturned a three-judge Court of Appeal decision which itself overturned the High Court jury's €900,000 award to Martin McDonagh, Cranmore Drive, Sligo.
The award was against Sunday Newspapers, publishers of the Sunday World, which carried an article in 1999 describing Mr McDonagh as a “Traveller drug king”.
That story arose after gardaí seized IR£500,000 worth of cannabis and amphetamines in August, 1999, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. It was published during Mr McDonagh’s seven-day detention for questioning in connection with that seizure.
Mr McDonagh denied any involvement in drugs and was ultimately released without charge.
The Sunday World denied libel and pleaded the article was true.
In 2008, the High Court jury said the paper failed to prove he was a drug dealer and loan shark and therefore libelled him, although it did find he was a tax cheat and a criminal.
The paper appealed and the Court of Appeal, in 2015, said the jury decision was perverse and found that Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer.
Mr McDonagh then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court which said the appeal court was incorrect and its order must be reversed in full.
It asked the parties to make submissions on how the case should proceed from here.
Following submissions today, Chief Justice Susan Denham said the court would hear arguments next week on whether, if the case is sent back to a jury, on the question of the defence of justification, and also on the question of damages itself. If the court finds it should not go back for retrial, it will assess damages.
Lawyers for both sides will have to address the court under Section 22 of the 1961 Defamation Act which provides that the defence of justification shall not fail by reason of the truth of every charge being proved and if the words do not materially injure a person's reputation having regard to the remaining charges.
This arose out of the Supreme Court's finding that the jury's decision was fatally flawed because it had, in its answers to a number of questions put to it, failed to answer at all a question as to whether Mr McDonagh's reputation was injured even where it said he was not a drug dealer or loan shark but was a tax cheat and a criminal.
Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, said it would be wholly disproportionate to send the case back for a full retrial on the basis that the original jury did not answer that question. It was his side's view that the jury did consider that question and the trial judge took a view as to whether it had been answered, he said.
Mr Doyle said his client wanted the Supreme Court to assess damages and there should not be a retrial, particularly on the drug dealing and loan sharking allegations.
It is 18 years since this case first came up and it would run counter to the whole concept of the primacy and sanctity of jury awards for it to go back for retrial, he said.
Eoin McCullough SC, for the Sunday World, said it should go back for a full retrial and none of the issues should be excluded for consideration by a jury particularly in the context of the defence of justification.
His side did not want the Supreme Court to assess damages because it has previously done so on the basis of what the jury had originally awarded. In the Monica Leech case, it reduced the award from €1.87m to €1.25m although this issue has since been referred back to Ireland by the European Court of Human Rights.