Ireland’s First ‘Honest Opinion’ Defamation Case

Denis O'Brien Defamation Lawsuit
Irish businessman, Denis O’Brien (above) won a defamation lawsuit against a journalist who argued “honest opinion.”

Billionaire Denis O’Brien won a watershed libel lawsuit in Ireland. He didn’t win mega-bucks, but the ruling is of mega-importance. The first “honest opinion” case to be considered since Ireland’s 2009 defamation law reform, O’Brien vs. Associated Newspapers tested how juries would react to the country’s newest defamation argument, “honest opinion” – a defense intended to bolster press freedoms.

Who Is O’Brien?

Denis O’Brien isn’t one of those discreet, super-rich guys. No, he’s more like the Donald Trump of Ireland – a conspicuous rich guy, who rocks a memorable quaff, that ain’t afraid to litigate. Like Trump, O’Brien is a corporate empire builder – but instead of real estate slinging, the Irish native dabbles in mobile and Wi-Fi wrangling.

As is often the talk around any great fortune, considerable speculation surrounds the source of O’Brien’s billions. His detractors believe the mogul got his money the old fashioned way – courtesy of a great crime. They say he made a devil’s deal with a high-ranking government official to secure a virtual monopoly on the mobile phone market in certain regions. He denies the allegations. Regardless, the controversy made him infamous in Ireland.

Why Did O’Brien Sue For Libel?

In 2010, when the devastating earthquake rocked Haiti, private citizens and public figures slipped into super hero capes and crashed into the streets of the island nation as fiercely as the earthquake – O’Brien included. Paul Drury, a journalist for the Irish daily Mail, however, was not convinced O’Brien’s post-quake generosity was purely selfless. In what Drury’s lawyer would later call a “sarcastic, cynical piece,” the reporter opined that O’Brien’s relief efforts were motivated by personal monetary concerns over Digicel – his mobile company with substantial interests in the Caribbean.

Offended by Drury’s character slight, O’Brien opted to file a defamation lawsuit.

Why Is O’Brien v. Associated Newspapers An Important Defamation Case?

In 2009, Ireland overhauled their defamation laws. One of the main changes was the addition of “honest opinion” as a viable defamation defense. O’Brien’s case against the Irish Daily Mail was the first time a jury considered and ruled on the defense. The case established significant legal precedence in Ireland.

Jury’s Decision in O’Brien v. Associated Newspapers: Free Speech Is Vital, But Not  At The Expense Of Unfair Character Attacks

The O’Brien ordeal was well-publicized, and Ireland was divided. Team O’Brien trumpeted the importance of reputation and lambasted unscrupulous journalists with a taste for sensationalism. On the other side, the attorney for the defense perhaps best expressed the sentiments of Team Drury in his closing statement:

“The right to express opinion is vital to society. This case is about the simple truth of the right to express an opinion. We want you to stand up for the right of someone to express his view.”

In the end, the jury sided with O’Brien.

Would O’Brien Have Won In A U.S. Court?

If a U.S. court heard this case, would it have handed down the same ruling? Probably not. Since the 1960s, actual malice has been the standard in American defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. As such, celebrities, officials and public personalities suing for slander or libel must prove that the plaintiff knowingly printed falsehoods with the express intent of harming the plaintiff.

Using United States defamation case law as a bar, it is unlikely O’Brien would have won this suit had it been tried in an American court. A judge or jury would most likely consider Drury’s comments opinion. Furthermore, under U.S. law, the plaintiff must prove how the statement in question was materially harmful — O’Brien would probably have a tough time producing evidence that he lost money or was denied a business opportunity as a result of Drury’s comments.

Libel Tourism: Is It Gone For Good?

Traditionally, defamation laws in Commonwealth countries are a lot more plaintiff-friendly than slander and libel laws in the United States. Being that humans are innately subject to the natural law of least resistance, many defamees endeavor to file in a favorable jurisdiction, even if that means filing in a foreign court with tenuous ties to the issue at hand.

The open nature of the World Wide Web, however, blurred publication and distribution borders, causing a boom in libel tourism at the beginning of the 21st Century. Defamation plaintiffs in North America cited inconsequential hyper-links and blog mentions to justify foreign jurisdiction.

Governments quickly caught on to the practice and have since moved to curtail international court hopping. Officials in the United States passed the SPEECH Act, a bill which aims to safeguard U.S. citizens from being forced to pay damages in a foreign libel lawsuit if the ruling is contrary to federal U.S. defamation standards. In the United Kingdom, perhaps the most-sought after libel tourism jurisdiction, parliamentarians are actively debating changes to their defamation laws. Their stated primary goal is to limit the number of foreigners taking advantage of their generous plaintiff libel laws.

Despite official efforts to tamp libel tourism, exceptions still exist. If you’re looking to file an international defamation lawsuit, it’s best to talk in an international libel lawyer.

The first Irish libel lawsuit to test the country’s “honest opinion” defense, O’Brien vs. Drury is a significant case in the annals of international defamation law. In the end, the jury decided that, while free speech is important, it doesn’t trump character assassination.

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