Denis O’Brien, Irelands wealthiest business man, recently lost a case that ran for about four weeks in the High Court.  He took the case against the Sunday Business Post regarding an article about a PWC report into the loan books of the Irish Banks.  The paper reported how he was tenth in a list of 22 borrowers and the article stated, “Irelands developer kings were massively overstretched”.  The Jury found that the article was not defamatory, and Mr O’Brien is now required to pay the costs of the case, estimated to be in the region of one million euro.  I understand he will be appealing some aspects of the decision.

Defamatory Statements

One essential element of any defamation action is that the Defendant published something defamatory about the Plaintiff.  A communication can be considered defamatory “if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him/her in the estimation of the community or deter third persons from associating with him/her”.  Examples of defamatory statements would include a) suggesting that the Plaintiff was involved in a serious crime, b) a communication that exposes the Plaintiff to ridicule, c) statements that reflect negatively on the Plaintiff’s character, morality or integrity, d) a communication that impairs the individual’s financial wellbeing and e) statements that suggest the Plaintiff is suffering from a physical and mental defect that would cause others to reframe from associating with him.

Judge or Jury

When a solicitor is consulted about a potential case, he will firstly seek an apology from the Defendant.  This will mitigate the damage done and sometimes may be sufficient to resolve matters.  If the defamation is modest, it will be taken in the Circuit Court where it is decided by a Judge alone.  If the defamation is considered very serious, then it may be a matter for the High Court, which involves a Judge sitting with a jury and the jury will decide the question of fact, generally whether the matter is defamatory.

Reform

The Irish Defamation Laws are considered by the media to be very Plaintiff friendly.  This is not necessarily correct as a need for free speech has to be carefully balanced with the need to protect people’s privacy and reputations.  In the current “social media” era, it is important people have strong defamation laws to protect themselves.