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Friday 9 December 2016

Sunday World appeals 'perverse' €900k libel payout

Martin McDonagh
Martin McDonagh

The Sunday World has urged the Court of Appeal to overturn a €900,000 damages award made to a man after a jury found he was libelled in an article describing him as a "Traveller drug king".

Martin McDonagh has been paid €90,000 of the €900,000 award, made in 2008, pending the outcome of the appeal.

Having heard arguments from both sides, Mr Justice Peter Kelly said the court was reserving judgment.

Mr McDonagh (45), Cranmore Drive, Sligo, sued over an article published on September 5, 1999. It was published mid-way through his seven-day detention for questioning in connection with a major 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 SC, the Sunday World argued the jury's findings were perverse and contrary to the weight of evidence before it, including from a series of garda witnesses.

Chilling

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 also argued. Submitting the jury verdict was perverse, counsel said it was "crucial" that several garda witnesses who testified were not cross-examined over statements made by Mr McDonagh in custody.

"No reasonable jury, if they accepted the statements, could have come to any conclusion other than the plaintiff was involved in drug dealing."

He also submitted the jury failed to answer one of the questions - question two - on the issue paper and this was tantamount to "jury misconduct".

Declan Doyle SC, for Mr McDonagh, underlined the gravity of the libel. Calling someone a drug dealer was about the worse thing anyone can say about a person, and the article had a "devastating" effect on his client.

Mr McDonagh had also, in evidence, denied he made certain statements in custody.

The jury found the defence had not proved his client was a drug dealer and the appeal court should interfere with that only in the most extreme circumstances, he submitted.

This article dealt with the matters at issue in minute detail and was clearly leaked to the paper by gardai, he argued.

Mr Doyle also argued the court should accept the jury must, by implication, have answered question two as they could not have proceeded to assess damages otherwise. The appeal continues.

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