A Dublin newspaper has been ordered to pay a record â‚¬1.8m in libel damages to a former PR consultant with the Irish government.
A jury found articles published in the Dublin-based Evening Herald newspaper defamed Monica Leech by wrongly implying she was having an extramarital affair with then environment minister Martin Cullen,
Leech, 49, who denies having had any sexual relationship with Mr Cullen, sued the newspaper’s owner, Independent Newspapers (Irl) Ltd.
Outside Dublin’s Four Courts, the married mother-of-two said the damages awarded had cleared her good name.
“I’ve been vindicated, my good name has been returned and I needed to do that for my people who are good people,” she said.
The damages shattered previous record awards of â‚¬750,000 (£636,467) against the Mirror Group to media mogul Denis O’Brien and â‚¬900,000 (£763,760) against the Sunday World to traveller Martin McDonagh.
Lawyers for the Evening Herald said they would appeal over the damages.
Leech, who was supported throughout the seven day trial by her husband John, said: “I want the people of Ireland to know how the Independent Media go about their business.
“They made up a story and for four-and-a-half years they lied to the good people of Ireland about me.
“They took my reputation, they destroyed my business and it has had a devastating effect on me and my family.”
The company had not yet said sorry, she said, adding: “So I would like to leave it out there to Independent Newspapers. Is sorry really the hardest word?”
The communications specialist was employed as a consultant to the Department of Environment and Local Government in 2002, on a â‚¬650 a day contract and again in 2003, at â‚¬800 euro a day to promote various projects for which Cullen’s department was responsible.
Her lawyers argued a series of articles in the Herald in November and December 2004 implied Leech won lucrative public relations contracts because she was having an extramarital affair with the minister.
But while Independent Newspapers accepted the pair did not have a relationship, it maintained in court that it raised legitimate questions as to whether Leech’s appointment was influenced by her connections with Cullen, who is now minister for arts, sport and tourism.
The media group alleged Leech, of South Parade, Waterford, in the south east of Ireland, was at the centre of a huge political storm concerning the use and misuse of public money.
Jurors had been told to decide if articles meant Leech had had an extramarital affair with Cullen and, secondly, if they meant she travelled to New York for a United Nations conference with the minister but failed to attend.
After four hours of deliberations a majority found she was libelled on the first point, but unanimously ruled that she was not libelled on the second question.
They awarded her â‚¬1,872,000 euros (£1,588,699).
Eoin McCullagh, senior counsel for Independent Newspapers, appealed for a stay to be put on the figure until a Supreme Court appeal is heard.
“It’s by any standard an extraordinarily high award, the highest by far there has ever been in a case like this or not like this,” he added.
Leech was previously paid â‚¬250,000 in damages by state broadcaster RTÃ‰ over comments made on a radio show, and about â‚¬125,000 plus costs from Associated Newspapers over two newspaper articles published in Ireland on Sunday.
Leech criticised standards in the press, a system that “keeps someone four-and-a-half years waiting for justice”, and uninformed politicians, who she claimed made political capital by making the accusations in the protection of the Dail.
She also vowed to continue with her legal action against other media groups.
“I will stand my ground and I will see every one of them off the pitch,” added Leech.
“I was wronged, gravely wronged, and for other people in Ireland who don’t have the strength perhaps or the support to get to where I am today I will do it for them as well.”
In a statement, Independent Newspapers said it believed the award was totally disproportionate.
“We will, of course, be appealing the award to the Supreme Court,” it said.
“This is yet another example of the pressing need for a fundamental review of our defamation laws.”
NUJ Irish Secretary SÃ©amus Dooley said the record damages were “disproportionate and bore no relationship with reality”.
“The NUJ supports the concept of jury trials in defamation proceedings but there is a clear need for reform of the law in this area, especially in the awarding of costs,” he said.
“Judges should be free to give specific direction in relation to the scale of damages. The current system allows juries to settle on a arbitrary figure.
“The result is outrageous sums, which are nothing more than the product of a consensus with no reference point or commercial reality.”