Aviation authority apppeals €387,000 defamation award to pilot
Posted on 28th April 2020 at 21:51
A €387,000 defamation award by a jury to an Aer Lingus pilot was “wholly disproportionate” and should be set aside, the Court of Appeal has been told.
The court should substitute its own reduced award to Padraig Higgins against the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) in place of that sum, the authority said.
Captain Higgins opposed an IAA appeal over the award arguing it was reasonable in the circumstances of the case.
The appeal was before a three-judge court via remote hearing on Tuesday when judgment was reserved.
Capt Higgins sued over three defamatory emails the authority sent in 2013.
His was the first case in which at jury was asked to assess damages where the defamation was admitted and an apology given.
It followed a Supreme Court decision in 2018 which found juries could assess damages in cases where an “offer of amends” had been made.
In Capt Higgins’ case, the IAA’s apology and retraction came at the outset of the assessment hearing in the High Court last November.
The jury awarded general damages of €300,000 and aggravated damages of €130,000 but applied a 10 per cent discount for the offer of amends, bringing the total to €387,000.
Capt Higgins, of Enfield, Co Meath, is a senior Aer Lingus Airbus pilot who also flies single engine aircraft in his spare time.
The case related to an incident in April 2013 when his newly acquired light aircraft had to make an emergency landing on rough ground near Swansea, Wales, after he encountered an unexpected fogbank.
He landed safely but the plane damaged the nose wheel when it hit a rock. As a result, he had to report it as an accident to the UK authorities, the court heard.
He had ensured before leaving that all his papers and licence allowing him to fly in UK airspace were in order.
In June, 2013, the first of the three defamatory emails was sent by now retired IAA manager of general aviation, Capt John Steel, to three IAA colleagues and to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA ).
The court heard Mr Higgins was formally cautioned by the UK CAA on July 11th, 2013 but less than three weeks later, the CAA wrote to him saying there will be no further enquiries “and the investigation will now be closed.”
He sued claiming the emails meant, among other things, he flew without a licence, was in breach of criminal and revenue law and put the safety of his own and his passenger’s life at risk.
In submissions to the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, Mr Quinn for the IAA argued the award for general damages was an enormous sum, wholly disproportionate and out of kilter with a number of recent defamation cases.
While it was admitted the emails from Capt Steel were a mistake, there was no evidence of any effect on Capt Higgins’ career, he said.
Mr Quinn also urged the complete setting aside of the aggravated damages element of the award and asked that a greater discount that then per cent be applied to to the overall damages.
Declan Doyle SC, for Captn Higgins, said the IAA was essentially arguing “ah that’s too much” but was not addressing the legal threshold that it must be capricious or irrational, which was not the case here.
The jury carefully considered its verdict after hearing submissions on the level of damages that could be awarded, he said.
The IAA stood over the emails for two years after they were sent and it was six years before an apology was offered, counsel said. The IAA never engaged properly in the level of defamation in the case and it was incorrect to say Mr Higgins had not suffered, he said.
The subject matter of this case fell into the most serious categories of defamation because it was saying Mr Higgins put himself and his passenger in his plane at risk, counsel said.
It would be a deep and serious irony that after fighting to have damages assessed by a jury that an appeal court would then substitute its own assessment, he added.
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