Sunday, January 31, 2010

Irish blogger agrees €100,000 settlement for libel

The Sunday Times has details of the settlement which was obliquely mentioned in Forbes last week:
A blogger has agreed a €100,000 settlement after libelling Niall Ó Donnchú, a senior civil servant, and his girlfriend Laura Barnes. It is the first time in Ireland that defamatory material on a blog has resulted in a pay-out.

Barnes, an American book dealer, made a profit of up to €800,000 in 2005 from selling a cache of James Joyce papers to the state. One year later she began a relationship with Ó Donnchú, an assistant secretary in the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism.

In December 1, 2006, a blogger who styles himself as Ardmayle posted a comment about the couple and the sale of the Joycean manuscripts under the headline “Barnes and Noble”. Following a legal complaint, he took down the blog and in February 2007 he posted an apology which had been supplied by Ó Donnchú’s and Barnes’ lawyer, Ivor Fitzpatrick solicitors.

“I subsequently discovered that these remarks were inaccurate,” Ardmayle said. “I unreservedly apologise to both Laura Barnes and Niall Ó Donnchú in respect of this post.”

However, the pair subsequently issued separate proceedings. It is understood that the €100,000 settlement was agreed shortly before the case was due before the High Court. A full defamation trial before a jury can cost €700,000-€800,000 in legal costs for both parties.

The blog, still active at, is in the form of a personal diary with observations on the arts, literature and sport. The author is not identified, and the litigants may have got his details through his internet server provider (ISP).

The settlement was subject to a confidentiality agreement, which forbids the blogger from speaking about it publicly. Neither Ó Donnchú nor Barnes responded to invitations to comment.
The Independent has more on the case from 2007 when proceedings were issued, and Sean Murphy has also produced a summary of the issues involved.

One interesting aspect of this case, as Mark points out, is the fact that the damages appeared to be quite high given that the blog in question was very low profile:
John Burns’s piece in today’s Sunday Times on the blogger who paid out €100,000 for libeling someone is interesting, and not just for bloggers. The blog which is the subject of the story is so obscure that Google finds zero – repeat zero – inward links. This is despite it having been operational since May 2005 (contrast that with TheStory; we’ve only been going since October or so, yet there are over 800 inward link results to the front-page alone). Additionally, the writer’s profile has only been viewed 3,000 times since the blog opened – or less than once per day.

So it’s a little-known, to say the least, blog.
Leaving aside the specifics of the case, perhaps this illustrates a more general point highlighting the importance of keeping good server logs.

The level of damages in defamation reflects the extent of publication – i.e. the extent to which the defamatory material was actually read. This is not (despite the best efforts of plaintiffs’ lawyers) the same as the extent to which it might have been read. Consequently (leaving aside other factors such as the gravity of the allegations) damages should be greatly reduced where the audience can be shown to be negligible. Potential readability worldwide notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, in the absence of server logs, it is going to be very difficult to rebut a plaintiff who claims that the material appeared quite high in search engine rankings, may have been read worldwide, etc. Consequently a defendant in that position is likely to be on the back foot, especially where a judge assumes that availability online automatically equals a mass audience.


  1. TJ, I understand that views logic does not bare any weight under the 2009 Act, as applied in the UK. See case of Lonzim v Sprague [2009] and in addition a cause of action arises in each instance! From the recent Trinity Defamation Conference, I think the message is that we've missed a trick. Also the case of Flood v Times Newspapers [2009] shows that Journo Privilege can also be lost via online content retention on matters which might rightfully be excused or settled. Ronan

  2. Paul O'Reilly09 February, 2010

    I'm slightly confused by the emphasis on "level of damages" in the above article.

    Is this relevant in the context of the Barnes/ODonnchu settlement? We have no way of knowing on what basis the settlement was negotiated or the quantum involved.

    I'm rather disappointed that the Court didn't rule on this application to be honest. Given the apology I don't think they'd have gotten more than nominal damages, (assuming the blog entry in question was defamatory in the first place - which is a substantial assumption).

  3. @Paul - I'd also like to have seen a court ruling on this point, and you may well be right as regards the level of damages should the matter have made it to trial. (Although by then the costs would have dwarfed the damages.) However, I don't think we can say that damages would be nominal without assessing the extent of dissemination.

    The server logs point is a general one - I have no knowledge as to the dissemination in this particular case, or the circumstances of the settlement. But clearly where a blog has very few readers damages are generally likely to be low. Consequently, logs will be important both at trial and in settlement negotiations - if a defendant can show minimal readership, it puts them in a much stronger position whether on the steps of the courtroom or in the courtroom itself.

  4. You're spot on about the logs in this case TJ. I understand the blogger in this case did not keep any logs and his hosting company was unable to help him on that front either. So he could not argue, with any proof, that very few people read the offending material.

  5. Paul O'Reilly10 February, 2010

    Fair points TJ. Thanks.

  6. @Paul - You might also be interested in the assessment of damages in this case.

  7. I agree that it's a shame that the case didn't go to court to allow a precedent for this kind of legal action. It would be well worth the likes of Google to set up a fund to cover the legal costs involved.

    There's no doubt the blogger was wrong, and it may have been a cut 'n paste article backed up by opinion. But the fact that he withdrew the post and issued the prepared apology, would indicate that he complied willingly once his error was pointed out to him.

    Worryingly, this sets a precedent for a suing culture until a case actually goes to court. I'm presuming the damages involved would have been minute, certainly a low 5 figure number at worst. Do you think they would have got their legal costs as well?