Pilot's defamation case will be first in which jury assesses damages under 'offer of amends' provision

The jury assessing damages in a case taken by an Aer Lingus pilot against the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) over defamatory emails it sent is expected to go out to consider its decision on Thursday.

Pilot's defamation case will be first in which jury assesses damages under 'offer of amends' provision

The jury assessing damages in a case taken by an Aer Lingus pilot against the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) over defamatory emails it sent is expected to go out to consider its decision on Thursday.

Mr Justice Bernard Barton is due to give his charge in the morning to the jury hearing Captain Padraig Higgins' case against the IAA. It follows the completion of speeches to the jury by counsel for both sides today.

It is the first jury to assess damages under an "offer of amends" provision in the 2009 Defamation Act.

The IAA has already apologised for the defamation and offered to pay damages. As the parties were unable to reach an agreement on the level of damages, a jury was asked to do so.

Captain Higgins, originally from Ballinasloe, Co Galway, and now living with this wife and five children in Thomastown, Enfield, Co Meath, is a senior Aer Lingus Airbus pilot. He also flies single engine aircraft in his spare time and is former vice-chair of the Irish Microlight Association.

The case relates to an incident in April 2013 when Captn 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 fogbank. Both aircraft landed safely but Captn Higgins' plane damaged the nose wheel 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, Captn 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.

The third email in July 2013, Captn 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 Captn 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.”

In the apology read to the court last week, the IAA accepted the statements in the emails were unsubstantiated and caused Captn Higgins upset and reputational damage. It acknowledged he was he was a person of high integrity who "did nothing to warrant this undesired attention."

It agreed to pay damages and legal costs. It was also agreed the apology would be sent to 13 named individuals, the Garda Commissioner and chairman of the Revenue Commissioners.

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

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