Ryanair defamation case defeated on jurisdictional grounds
By Charles Waterhouse
26 Jan, 2017
The Court of Appeal has upheld the High Court Decision that the Irish Courts lack jurisdiction in a defamation case brought by Ryanair against an Australian pilot.
The Court of Appeal delivered its decision on 4 October 2016 via Mr. Justice Hogan. This Appeal arose from a decision of Mr. Justice O’Connor in the High Court whereby he dismissed Ryanair’s case on Forum Conveniens grounds in circumstances where Ryanair was suing the Defendant, Mr. Fleming, for what it says are defamatory comments made by him on an internet website forum entitled “Professional Pilots Rumour Network”. The Defendant is resident in Australia and the internet forum is based in California.
Mr. Fleming denied that the comments were defamatory and in any event maintains that the Plaintiff sought to ground proceedings on a slender and technical jurisdictional basis, namely, that the tort was committed in Ireland. The comments themselves were made as part of a series of lengthy posts concerning aviation safety generally and stated that four Ryanair aircrafts flying to Spain from various destinations on a particular evening had declared fuel emergencies. Mr. Fleming’s own post challenged both the experience of the Ryanair pilots and the wisdom of the minimum fuel policies which he maintained were practised by Ryanair
Mr. Justice Hogan held that there was no evidence of actual publication (the post hadn’t been accessed or downloaded) of this post in Ireland, so that the Irish Courts lacked jurisdiction. Secondly, even if the technical requirements and jurisdictional issues were satisfied, there is at most a tenuous connection behind the alleged tort of defamation and this jurisdiction; therefore the proper forum remained that of Mr. Fleming's domicile, namely, the Australian Courts.
Conflict of Laws
Mr. Justice Hogan noted that in the absence of special circumstances, a Defendant should normally be sued in the place where he or she is domiciled. The basis for this principle is that the Defendant should not be forced to defend a case in a foreign jurisdiction and in one in which he/ she is not familiar – unless there are some special circumstances which justify this.
Ryanair identified 12 contributors to the particular website discussion who stated that they were located in Ireland, however the court held, this does not establish that any of these 12 particular contributors actually downloaded the post in this jurisdiction. Judge Hogan noted that it is true that the website could have been accessed by anyone anywhere in the world, however, Ryanair have failed to identify any Third Party who has come forward to say that they actually downloaded or accessed the post in Ireland.
Mr. Justice Hogan further stated that it would be hard to say that a participant posting from Australia on an international website based in California on an alleged incident which took place in Spain could foresee that they were exposing themselves to litigation in Ireland simply by comments made about an Irish based airline in the course of that posting as that post had no other connection with this jurisdiction.
Mr. Justice Hogan stated that the connection of the alleged tort with this jurisdiction would be too tenuous and affirmed the High Court position in that regard. Mr. Justice Hogan distinguished this case to that of Richardson –v- Schwarzenegger (2004) EWHC 2422, due to the fact that the underlying events (in this instance the alleged fuel emergencies) did not take place in Ireland.
The court further noted that even if jurisdiction was established Irish Law would not be regarded as the proper law, given that these comments were made by an Australian citizen in Australia.
The Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court on the grounds of lack of jurisdiction and Forum Conveniens. It would appear that even if Ryanair could establish that a third party accessed and downloaded the material within this jurisdiction the Court would have had difficulty in recognising Irish Law as the applicable law. The Court attributed a high degree of importance to the fundamental principle that the Plaintiff should sue a Defendant where he or she is domiciled and only in exceptional circumstances will this principle be waived.