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Media Law

€85,000 Defamation award to former Premier League footballer upheld

By Charles Waterhouse
09 February, 2017

The Court of Appeal has affirmed a jury award of €85,000 made to a former footballer, David Speedie in defamation proceedings brought against the Sunday World Newspaper.

The Background

These proceedings were as a result of the publication of two articles in the Sunday World in April 2011.  The Plaintiff had moved from the UK to Dublin to be with his then fiancée, Ms Grey.  Ms Grey’s sister was in turn married to the brother of a notorious criminal figure. 

Article 1 contained two distinct allegations against Mr. Speedie – (1) Suspicion of involvement in crime and (2) associating with known criminals.  Article 2 was headed “Speedie the Snake” and referred to the fact that Mr. Speedie had caused a solicitors letter to be written to the newspaper claiming he had been defamed by Article 1.

The libel action itself lasted for five days before Mr. Justice Hedigan and following lengthy submissions on both sides, an issue paper containing eight questions was agreed and put to the jury.  The jury’s verdict was to the effect that Article 1 inferred the Plaintiff had been reasonably suspected of involvement in criminal activities and awarded €85,000 damages in respect of this defamation. 

The Appeal

The newspaper argued in the Court of Appeal that there was a mis-trial in that the trial judge had infringed the “single meaning” rule by allowing question 2 (Garda suspicion of involvement in criminal activity) and question 4 (association with known criminals) both to go to the jury.

Hogan J. explored the single meaning rule and the explanation given in Yeo v Times Newspapers Ltd [2014] EHC 2853 and found its object is “to ensure that the same set of words contained in a published piece has a fixed, settled meaning, thereby providing certainty for the parties and mitigating the risk of inconsistent jury verdicts arising from confusion as to the meaning of the words in question”.  The Court held that the two questions raised two distinct allegations each of which were capable of bearing separate defamatory meanings, thus “it was perfectly possible for an individual not to be involved in crime while at the same time associating with known criminals”.  This, in effect, is what the jury found in this case.  The Court therefore found that the single meaning rule had not been breached.

The second objection made by the newspaper was that the sequence of the questions on the issue paper prevented the jury from properly considering the scope of the newspaper’s section 16(2) (Defamation Act 2009) defence.  S. 16(2) relates to the defence of “truth” and states that even if only some of the allegations in a statement are proven to be true the defence will still hold up as long as the untrue words do not materially injure the plaintiff’s reputation in light of the truthful allegations.  It contended that the sequence of questions meant that in the event that the jury considered that Article 1 bore either of the meanings contended by the Plaintiff, the jury must proceed immediately to an assessment of damages and was thereby deprived of the opportunity to consider the s. 16(2) defence.  The Court found that the newspaper must be estopped by its own conduct from raising this defence as no objection was raised during the debate in relation to the issue paper itself nor was it raised in closing speeches to the jury. 

In dismissing the appeal the Court unanimously held that there was no basis on which the amount of the jury’s award should be interfered with.

Comment

This judgment once again reflects the importance of jury awards in defamation actions and the reluctance of the Courts to interfere with the level of awards granted.  Hogan J further emphasised the importance of raising the appropriate defences in a timely fashion and simply raising a further defence at the latter stages of a trial may result in same being inadmissible.   

For more information on the content of this Insight, please contact:
Charles Waterhouse, Solicitor, charles.waterhouse@rdj.ie

 

 

 

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