Higgins v Irish Aviation Authority

CourtCourt of Appeal (Ireland)
JudgeMr. Justice Binchy
Judgment Date16 June 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] IECA 157
Docket NumberRecord Number: 2019/515CA
Date16 June 2020
- AND -

[2020] IECA 157

Noonan J.

Murray J.

Binchy J.

Record Number: 2019/515CA


Defamation – Damages – Proportionality – Appellant seeking to appeal against an award in damages made in favour of the respondent – Whether the awards of both general damages and aggravated damages were unreasonable, excessive and disproportionate

Facts: The appellant, the Irish Aviation Authority, appealed to the Court of Appeal against an award in damages made in favour of the respondent, Mr Higgins, in defamation proceedings. The award of €300,000 in respect of general damages, and €130,000 in respect of aggravated damages was made by a jury, and followed upon an offer of amends made by the appellant to the respondent, pursuant to s. 22 of the Defamation Act 2009, which offer was accepted by the respondent. The jury also decided that, in view of the offer of amends, the appellant should be given a discount on the damages so awarded of 10%, resulting in a net overall award to the respondent in the sum of €387,000. The appellant sought to appeal the entire decision of the jury on the grounds that the awards of both general damages and aggravated damages were unreasonable, excessive and disproportionate, and that the level of discount afforded to the appellant was deficient, in all of the circumstances.

Held by Binchy J that the respondent’s reputation stood fully vindicated to his satisfaction, further litigation would inevitably add significantly to what were already disproportionate costs, and litigation that had been going on almost seven years needed to be brought to an end. He therefore proceeded to assess damages, rather than sending the matter back to the High Court for a retrial. He held that the sum of €70,000 was in all the circumstances of this case an appropriate sum to compensate the respondent for the damage to his reputation and the ensuing distress and upset caused to him. Binchy J held that while an award of aggravated damages was warranted, it followed from the reduction in the award of general damages that there should also be a very significant reduction in the award of aggravated damages. He considered that the sum of €15,000 properly reflected the conduct of the appellant between the publication of the defamatory statements and the making of the offer of amends. Binchy J held that there is an obligation on defendants in defamation proceedings to move very quickly to redress, as effectively as possible, the damage caused to the reputation of the person who has been defamed, and the appellant, in taking almost two years to make its offer of amends, failed utterly to do so. Binchy J noted that, having made an offer of amends, the appellant then demonstrated a high handed approach to negotiations in refusing to meet with the respondent for discussions thereafter, after the respondent had rejected the appellant’s offer of compensation. In all of those circumstances, it was Binchy J’s view that the discount of 10% of damages which the jury considered appropriate should not be interfered with.

Binchy J held that he would reduce the combined total of general and aggravated damages, of €85,000, by 10% (€8,500) and make an award in favour of the respondent in the reduced amount of €76,500.

Award in favour of respondent.

JUDGMENT of Mr. Justice Binchy delivered on the 16 th day of June 2020

This is a decision on an appeal brought by the appellant against an award in damages made in favour of the respondent in defamation proceedings. The award was made by a jury, and followed upon an offer of amends made by the appellant to the respondent, pursuant to s. 22 of the Defamation Act 2009 (the “Act of 2009”), which offer was accepted by the respondent. This is the first case in which an award was made by a jury following an offer of amends, and it followed upon a decision of the Supreme Court, in these and other proceedings, which determined that where the parties in defamation proceedings cannot reach agreement on damages in such circumstances, that the assessment of damages is a matter for a jury.


The respondent is a senior commercial airline pilot working for Aer Lingus. He is originally from Ballinasloe, County Galway and, having left school in 1984, he worked for a year so that he could then take up a place studying engineering in University College, Galway. Three years into that degree course, he was offered a prestigious cadetship to embark upon pilot training in Aer Lingus, and so he left college to avail of that opportunity. This training took around two years to complete, after which the respondent qualified as a pilot. In 2001 the respondent was promoted to the position of captain, and in 2016 began flying transatlantic flights in Aer Lingus' largest plane, the Airbus A330. In his leisure time, the respondent is a light aircraft enthusiast, and for some years prior to the matters giving rise to these proceedings, was the owner and pilot of a microlight aircraft.


In April 2013. the respondent and a friend travelled with two others to Italy to collect two microlight aircraft, which they intended to fly back to Ireland. Their plan was to fly the aircraft in stages, via the United Kingdom, to Ireland, in a journey that would last four or five days. On arrival in Ireland, it was the respondent's intention to land in a small private airfield in Rathvilly, Co. Carlow. Towards the end of this journey, both aircraft were required to make an emergency landing near Swansea owing to poor visibility. Both aircraft landed safely, although the respondent's plane hit a small block causing some damage to the nose wheel and propeller of the same. Prior to all legs of the journey, the respondent had made the necessary notifications to the relevant aviation authorities and, following the landing in Swansea, he notified the emergency landing both to the local police and the Air Accident Investigation Bureau in the U.K. (the “AAIB”). as required by law. Subsequently, the AAIB entered into communications with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (the “U.K. CAA”) about the incident. The U.K. CAA then opened an investigation into the matter, in order to be satisfied that all regulatory requirements in relation to the flights in U.K. air space had been satisfied. The day after the incident, the respondent flew the undamaged plane to Rathvilly, having first made any necessary filings in relation to that flight.


On 11 th July, 2013, a Mr. Robert Webb of the U.K. CAA wrote to the respondent informing him that an investigation into the incident in Swansea had been opened. In this letter, Mr. Webb identified five possible offences: flying into UK airspace without the permission of the U.K. CAA, flying without having registered the aircraft, flying without a certificate of airworthiness, flying without a permit to fly and flying without an appropriate flight crew licence. In the course of its enquiries, the U.K. CAA entered into correspondence with the respondent, who replied promptly, expressing concern about the possible impact of the investigation for his work. Accordingly, the U.K. CAA dealt with the matter expeditiously. By 26 th July, 2013, the U.K. CAA had satisfied itself that all of the necessary documentation for the flights had been filed by the respondent, and was in order, and that no further action was required. The respondent was notified accordingly. In his e-mail to the respondent of 26 th July, 2013, Mr. Webb stated: “The regulations in relation to flying these types of aircraft from Italy in UK airspace and the associated airworthiness considerations has been fairly complex”. He goes on to say that having taken advice from colleagues, he has been satisfied that the respondent's documentation for the flights was correct.


Before the U.K. CAA investigation, in June 2013 the respondent had heard rumours about the incident in Swansea. Whether it was as a result of these rumours and/or the U.K. CAA investigation, or both, on 26 th September, 2013, the respondent made a data protection request of both the appellant and the U.K. CAA in connection with the matter. In due course, he received a reply (with documents) from both authorities. Included in the material that he received from the U.K. CAA, were three e-mails from the appellant to personnel in both the U.K. CAA and the appellant organisation itself, which were issued on behalf of the appellant by a Mr. John Steel, in response to e-mails received from the U.K. CAA. The former e-mails i.e. those sent by Mr. Steel (hereafter the “E-mails”) are the publications that gave rise to these proceedings. Although the appellant responded to the respondent's data protection request, and provided some e-mails that it had exchanged with the U.K. CAA, it did not provide the respondent with the E-mails. The following is the text of the e-mails received by the appellant from the U.K. CAA, and the responses thereto from Mr. Steel (i.e. the E-mails):-

E-mail from Ms. Diane Park of the U.K. CAA to Mr. John Steel of the appellant on 21 June 2013 at 15:21


Copy of the AAIB notification.”

Response of Mr. John Steel sent to a Mr. Lou Fine and Mr. John Murray (of the appellant), copying Ms. Diane Park and Mr. Terry O'Neill, of the U.K. CAA on 21 June 2013 at 15:35


It would appear that Mr. Padraig Higgins and A. N. Other, believed to a Mr. David Bolger carried out a flight from Milan to the Dublin area (Rathvilly) on or around 22 April 2013. As per the content of the attached ACCID from the UK AAIB, one of the aircraft had an incident on landing.

Can you liaise with Diane and give her any assistance she needs in tracking down and contacting the individuals, including their licence details. Additionally, can you check with our the Gardai and Revenue to see if they complied with their requirements to advise of...

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7 cases
  • Paidraig Higgins v The Irish Aviation Authority
    • Ireland
    • Supreme Court
    • 7 March 2022
    ...award of damages which had been made to the plaintiff in the defamation proceedings was disproportionate, excessive and unreasonable: [2020] IECA 157. The Court of Appeal concluded that the jury award of €300,000 in general damages should be reduced to €70,000, and that the award of €130,00......
  • Gordon v The Irish Racehorse Trainers Association
    • Ireland
    • Court of Appeal (Ireland)
    • 22 December 2022
    ...[2000] IESC 70, [2001] 1 IR 1. 246 . It also placed some reliance on the decision of this Court in Higgins v. Irish Aviation Authority [2020] IECA 157. The plaintiff in that action was a commercial pilot who, the defendant eventually admitted, had been defamed in e-mails sent by the defenda......
  • Gordon v The Irish Racehorse Trainers Association
    • Ireland
    • High Court
    • 9 September 2020
    ...Plc [1999] 4 I.R. 432 at 462; Leech v. Independent Newspapers ltd [2015] 2 I.R. 214 at para 120 and Higgins v. Irish Aviation Authority [2020] IECA 157 at para Whether Circuit Court Costs Appropriate; S.17 Courts Acts 1981/91 38 I accept as correct in law Mr. Harty's submission that in the ......
  • Higgins v The Irish Aviation Authority
    • Ireland
    • Court of Appeal (Ireland)
    • 9 October 2020
    ...the event Facts: Binchy J, in his judgment delivered on 16 June 2020, identified four issues that fell for resolution in this appeal ([2020] IECA 157 at para. 33): (i) whether the Court should set aside the award made by the jury to the respondent, Mr Higgins, in the sum of €300,000 in resp......
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