Earlier this week, the Supreme Court reserved judgment in a man's appeal against the overturning by the Court of Appeal of an award of damages of €900,000 made in the High Court arising from a newspaper article that described him as a "Traveller Drug King". The jury in the High Court had found that the newspaper had failed to prove that he was a drug dealer and had therefore libelled him in the article. As we previously reported, the Court of Appeal found that the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the man being a drug dealer and quashed the jury's findings.
This case is one in a series of cases that has come under scrutiny for awards of high damages and the role of juries in defamation cases. There is particular discontent amongst the media that too much value is placed on "reputation" by both juries and judges. The Department of Justice recently sought submissions on the Defamation Act 2009 specifically raising these same issues.
The current record for damages for defamation is the sum of €10m which was awarded in a case involving a press release by a company that defamed a former employee. Another well-known case is that of Monica Leech, who brought an action against a newspaper that had implied that she was having an affair with a government minister. On appeal, the Supreme Court substituted an award of €1.87m for one of €1.25m. Although there was a reduction in damages, it had been widely anticipated that the reduction would have been more significant. In that case an analogy was made to damages for personal injuries with the newspaper urging the Supreme Court to have regard to the highest level of general damages that may be awarded in the most serious personal injuries case, which is significantly lower than the €1.87m awarded by the High Court. However, the Supreme Court found that personal injuries damages are not an appropriate analogy for damage to reputation and held that damages for defamation are to compensate the Plaintiff for injury to feelings and to vindicate the Plaintiff's name in respect of the public at large. It found that this element of vindication is not present in personal injury actions.
Many commentators also refer to the fact that a Book of Quantum sets down how much compensation should be paid to someone for personal injury but that no such mechanism is available when reputation is damaged.
With the Court of Appeal holding that damages for personal injuries should be just and reasonable and assessed by reference to a spectrum of damages from minor to catastrophic/life changing injuries that have a cap of €450,000, it is likely that there will be more calls for a similar assessment for damages in defamation cases.
It will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court upholds the approach of the Court of Appeal in this case. We will update you once the judgment has been issued.