Billionaire businessman wins record Irish damages against Mirror

Billionaire businessman Denis O'Brien has been awarded a record £507,000 in damages against Mirror Group over a story in its Irish editions which claimed he had bribed a government minister to get a radio broadcasting licence.

The award, decided yesterday by a jury at the High Court in Dublin after little more than an hour's deliberation, is the highest for defamation damages in Irish legal history.

But what the jury did not know was that an earlier award of IR£250,000 had been overturned by the Irish Supreme Court, which had described it as being "disproportionately high" and said the case could not be regarded as "coming within the grossest and most serious libels which have come before the courts".

The Supreme Court at the same time rejected the Mirror's application for it to reconsider the rule in Irish law that juries in libel cases should not be given guidelines and information on the level of damages by the judge or counsel.

The jury which decided the damages yesterday had been told that Mr O'Brien intended to give any award to charity.

The Mirror was expected to appeal once again to the Supreme Court.

When the jury announced the damages, the Mirror's counsel, Eoin McCullough, said it was the highest in such cases, and asked for a stay as an appeal was likely.

Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne said stayed the award but ordered a payment of 250,000 euros (£169,170).

James O'Leary, a legal adviser to the Mirror Group in Ireland, told the Irish Times that the newspaper group was extremely disappointed with the level of the award.

The newspaper admitted in April this year that the story, which was published over three pages, was untrue and defamatory of Mr O'Brien.

O'Brien had sued Mirror Group Newspapers over an article which appeared in the Irish Mirror on June 10, 1998.

It claimed that former justice minister Ray Burke was to be investigated for a third alleged payment of £30,000 and referred to an anonymous letter which alleged the donation came from "top radio boss Denis O'Brien".

In 1999 a High Court jury found that O'Brien, then Esat Digifone chairman, had been libelled and awarded him IR£250,000 in damages. The Supreme Court struck the figure down on appeal and sent the case back to be re-tried on the damages issue.

The Irish Independent reported today that the damages figure had sparked calls for speedy reform of what it called Ireland's "archaic" defamation laws.

Frank Cullen, director of the National Newspapers of Ireland, told the newspaper that the figure was "staggering" and added: "The award clearly illustrates once again the need to reform our archaic libel laws and, as illustrated by this case, to provide mechanisms for judges to give guidance to juries on the level of damages to be awarded."

NUJ Irish secretary Seamus Dooley told the newspaper: "The amount appears disproportionate to the damage caused given the size of the circulation of the Irish Mirror, which is relatively small."

The previous highest damages in a libel case in the Irish Republic was the IR£300,000 (443,000 euros) the Irish Sunday Independent was ordered to pay former Democratic Left leader, now Labour Party MEP, Proinsias De Rossa.


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