An Aer Lingus pilot whose €387,000 defamation award by a jury was cut to €76,500 on appeal has had the award upped to €202,500 by the Supreme Court.
The new award to Captain Padraig Higgins, which includes €175,000 for general damages, brings to an end a nine-year legal battle by the Airbus pilot.
In November 2019, Captain Higgins, who lives in Enfield, Co Meath, was found by a High Court jury to have been defamed by the Irish Aviation Authority in three emails sent by the IAA in 2013.
The court heard he was a senior Aer Lingus pilot who also flew single-engine aircraft in his spare time.
The emails were sent following an incident in which he had to make an emergency landing of a light aircraft in Wales.
The emails, it was claimed, meant he had flown the aircraft unauthorised even though his papers were fully in order and in circumstances where the UK Civil Aviation Authority, following an investigation, considered the case closed.
The IAA eventually offered an apology – which Captain Higgins said came six-a-half-years too late – and an “offer of amends” was made.
Ultimately, the matter of amends went before a High Court jury which awarded him €387,000, including €300,000 general damages..
The IAA appealed and in June 2020, the Court of Appeal (CoA) cut it to €76,500, including €70,000 for general damages plus €6,500 in aggravated damages..
Captain Higgins asked for and was granted a further appeal by the Supreme Court.
Today, a five-judge Supreme Court, in a four-to-one decision, allowed his appeal and substituted its own award of €202,500, including €175,000 in general damages.
The majority judgment was given by Mr Justice John MacMenamin, with whom Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne concurred, and with whom Ms Justice Marie Baker and Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe in part concurred and who also agreed with the substituted award.
Mr Justice Gerard Hogan dissented and said an award of €103,500 total damages was appropriate.
The central issues in the appeal included how the offer of amends procedure should operate and what guidance a trial judge should give to a jury to assist in determining damages in defamation.
There was also the issue of the proper circumstances in which an appellate court should set aside the jury’s award.
Mr Justice MacMenamin said the 2009 Defamation Act provided for an appellate court to substitute its own award as it considered appropriate.
There was no legislative intention, under the act, to alter the pre-existing judicial practice of deference to jury awards, he said.
Responding to Mr Justice Hogan’s observations on the issue of free speech versus defamation, Mr Justice MacMenamin said that as the defamatory comments in this case were not true, nor based on belief, they were not subject to the same constitutional protection as expressions of conviction or opinion.
He found, however, that in awarding the bulk (€300,000) of the €387,000, the High Court had substantially departed from the appropriate parameters of the case, and that it was not defamation in the highest range of cases,
He decided that though the award should be set aside, it should not be remitted to be assessed by jury again and that a court should not stand in the way of the public interest in concluding a case.
He found the CoA was wrong to cut general damages to €70,000 for what was “very serious defamation” and the appropriate figure for this was €175,000. Adding €50,000 for aggravated damages, and giving a 10pc discount for the offer of amends by the IAA, this brought the amount to €202,500.
In his dissenting judgment, Mr Justice Hogan said the law had moved on from the prior position where appellate courts should be slow to interfere with jury awards in defamation.
This reflected the importance of the right to free speech under the Constitution, he said.
The Defamation Act showed that the Oireachtas intended the judiciary to have a greater role in determining damages, he said.
The defamation in this case fell into the “intermediate” category of defamation cases, such that an award of €100,000 for general damages was more appropriate, he said. He left the CoA’s €15,000 for aggravated damages undisturbed.
Giving a 10pc discount for the offer of amends, the total he would have awarded amounted to €103,500.