In September 1999, while Martin McDonagh was being questioned by police in relation to a large drugs seizure, the Sunday World published a front-page story, including a partially obscured photograph of McDonagh, describing him as a drug dealer, loan shark, tax evader and convicted criminal. Following his release from police custody, no charges were brought against McDonagh, and he brought defamation proceeding against the newspaper over the article.
The newspaper pleaded the defence of “truth,” and during the five-day defamation trial in 2008, produced a number of law enforcement officials, who gave evidence that McDonagh had been involved in “substantial drug trafficking”, and “was aware a drugs consignment was being planned, that the drugs had been bought in Spain by the man [McDonagh] met in London.” McDonagh had also made a € 100,000 settlement with the Criminal Assets Bureau, a law enforcement agency which seizes proceeds of crime.
The jury found that the newspaper had successfully pleaded the defence of truth in relation to the allegations of being a “tax evader” and “criminal”, but found that the newspaper had failed in relation to the allegations of being a “drug dealer” and “loan shark.” The jury decided to award McDonagh € 900,000 in damages. This was the largest defamation award in Irish legal history.
The newspaper appealed the jury’s determination to the Court of Appeal, which unanimously allowed the appeal. First, the Court found the allegation of drug dealing was true, as “viewed objectively, the evidence overwhelmingly pointed to the conclusion the plaintiff was, indeed, a drug dealer associated with the drugs seizure in Tubercurry.” Mr. Justice Hogan stated that “if the allegation was correct”, then “the newspaper had a constitutional right to publish this, and that right cannot be compromised by a jury verdict that was, in essence, perverse.”
Second, the Court found that “there should be a re-trial in relation to a second allegation of loan sharking,” holding that “the evidence in relation to the loan sharking allegation was much more limited. It might have been open to a properly instructed jury to find for Mr McDonagh on that allegation.”
Notably, the original jury award was made before the Irish parliament passed a new Defamation Act 2009, which provides that a High Court judge “shall give directions to the jury in relation to the matter of damages,” and provides a list of criteria a jury “shall” consider when determining damages.