30 08 2017 Insights Media Law

Vulgar language used as reprimand does not amount to defamation

Courthouse Justice

By Tina English
7 April, 2017

A recent defamation action which failed before the Circuit Court has reinforced the long established principal that mere vulgar abuse does not necessarily constitute defamation. The plaintiff in the case, a trainee dental nurse, claimed she had been defamed when a Dublin bus driver called her a “f**king skankhole” on board a bus. The plaintiff argued that the word “skankhole” meant she was a woman of low morals, promiscuous, dishonest, socially undesirable and a prostitute.

The incident occurred when the plaintiff, having boarded a Dublin bus, was told by the driver to leave the bus and pick up some litter he said she had dropped. She claimed to have been embarrassed and had refused to do so. After the bus driver gave her a ticket he called her “a f**king skank”. When she eventually left the bus at her stop he called her “a f**king skankhole.”

The Court held that the bus driver uttered the words complained of and there was no question that the words had the potential to be grievously defamatory of a woman in particular. Counsel for the bus driver argued that people use throwaway comments of criticism which are not meant in any defamatory manner in day to day situations. The bus driver got annoyed when the plaintiff refused to pick up the litter but no reasonable person would infer the meanings alleged by the remarks that had been made.

The question before the court, Judge Raymond Groarke, President of the Circuit Court noted, was whether it would be reasonable for anyone hearing those words spoken in the particular context of refusing to pick up the litter, to determine the Plaintiff was a person of low moral character. In dismissing the plaintiff’s claim, the Judge said it seemed no half-intelligent person in Dublin, hearing the discourse about not having picked up the litter, would draw such a conclusion.

He noted in the real world, words were used for purposes of insult and causing offence and the words spoken by the bus driver had been used as a reprimand. Although he complimented the driver for having taken the plaintiff to task for littering, the Judge stated the words should not have been spoken, and made no order as to costs against the plaintiff.

For more information on the content of this Insight contact:
Tina English, Associate Solicitor, tina.english@rdj.ie, +353 21 2332824

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