Defamation

Widow Awarded Compensation for Defamatory Report of Husband´s Death


 

The widow of a Rathkeale Traveller, who died on holiday in Cologne, has been awarded €20,000 compensation for a defamatory report of her husband´s death.

On 24th April 2011, Patrick Hegarty (37) died of a heart attack while hitching his caravan to the back of his car. Patrick and his family were in Germany at the time as part of a group of Travellers who traditionally converge on Cologne around Easter. His body was flown back from Frankfurt to Dublin, and he was buried in Limerick a week later.

The following week, the Sunday World published an article about Patrick´s death – alleging that he had died due to an excess of alcohol, that the family had tried to transport his body back to Ireland in the back of a van, and that Patrick´s death had sparked riots at the site where the Travellers had congregated.

Patrick´s widow – Kathleen Hegarty – was particularly distressed by the newspaper report. She rang the Sunday World to complain, but never received a return call or an apology about how her dead husband and the family had been portrayed in the article. Consequently Kathleen consulted a solicitor and claimed compensation for the defamatory report of her husband´s death.

The newspaper denied the allegations, arguing that she could not claim that she had been defamed because she was not mentioned by name in the article. However, at the Limerick Circuit Court, Judge James O´Donohoe said that the core issue was whether the article injured a person´s reputation “in the eyes of reasonable members of society”.

The judge ruled that although Kathleen was not mentioned by name, she was clearly identifiable in the newspaper article as the deceased´s widow and that – in the context of Traveller´s culture and traditions – the comments made by the Sunday World would be “injurious to her good name in the community”. The judge awarded Kathleen €20,000 compensation for a defamatory report of her husband´s death and €5,000 to each of Kathleen´s brothers, who had also been referred to anonymously in the article.