Martin McDonagh has been paid €90,000 of the €900,000 award, made in 2008, pending the outcome of the newspaper’s appeal.
Having heard arguments from both sides, Mr Justice Peter Kelly, sitting with Justices Mary Irvine and Gerard Hogan, said the court was reserving judgment.
Mr McDonagh, aged 45, Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999, describing him as a “Traveller drug king”. It was published midway through his seven-day detention for questioning in connection with a drug seizure at Tubbercurry, Co Sligo. Mr McDonagh, who has always denied involvement in drugs, was ultimately released without charge.
The newspaper denied libel and pleaded justification and that the contents of the article were true.
The jury found the newspaper had failed to prove Mr McDonagh was a drug dealer and a loan shark but had proven he was a tax evader and a criminal.
In its appeal, presented by Eoin McCullough, the Sunday World argued the jury’s findings were perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence before it. The amount of the award was “excessive and disproportionate” and the court should bear in mind the “chilling” effect on journalism of high libel awards, he argued.
The previous comparable maximum figure was €400,000, awarded to former politician Prionsias de Rossa, he said, adding that
PR consultant Monica Leech’s €1.87m award was last year reduced by the Supreme Court to €1.25m, of which a substantial part related to the impact on Ms Leech’s business, he added.
Declan Doyle, for Mr McDonagh, said the gravity of this libel was worse than in the case of Ms Leech. Calling someone a drug dealer was about the worst thing anyone can say about a person and the article had a “devastating” effect on his client.
Mr Doyle accepted, as a statement of law, damages to be made to a person with an unblemished reputation would be larger than a person with a blemished one.
It was not helpful to assess damages in defamation cases according to standard of awards in person injury cases, counsel said.