High Court: Coolmore Stud granted order striking out frivolous and vexatious defamation claim



High Court
High Court

Coolmore Stud has been granted an order striking out a defamation claim brought by a former employee who wrote a book about the famous thoroughbred farm after he retired in 2015.

Coolmore Stud wrote letters to retailers and distributors of the book after it was published, threatening legal action if the book was not taken off the shelves.

Finding that previous litigation had already established Coolmore’s right to write the letters, Mr Justice Senan Allen said that the former employee was seeking to relitigate issues previously decided in the superior courts and that the action was frivolous and vexatious.

Background

The defendant, Coolmore Stud, operates a commercial thoroughbred breeding and racing business from a stud farm in Tipperary. The plaintiff, William Jones, is a former Coolmore employee who retired in January 2015.

In August 2014, Mr Jones made a complaint to the Labour Relations Commission, which resulted in a settlement agreement, signed in December 2014, wherein Coolmore paid Mr Jones €30,000 as a gesture of appreciation for his service. The settlement agreement contained a number of clauses, including the following:

  • “This agreement is strictly private and confidential to the parties involved except where called upon by the statutory bodies or by law. Confidentiality is an essential term of this agreement on both parties”
  • “It is a term of this agreement that no records relating to animals or clients will be disclosed by claimant”
  • “Both parties agree that they will not make any derogatory comments about each other at any time in the future”

The Black Horse Inside Coolmore

In 2015, Mr Jones wrote a book entitled The Black Horse Inside Coolmore, which Coolmore requested a copy of prior to publication. Mr Jones declined to provide a copy of the manuscript, stating that he had complied with the terms of the settlement agreement.

The book was published in November 2015, and Coolmore took the view that it:

  1. Breached Mr Jones’ obligations of confidentiality;
  2. Disclosed records relating to animals and clients;
  3. Was replete with derogatory comments about Coolmore;
  4. Was defamatory of Coolmore and others; and
  5. Infringed the copyright of a number of third parties.

Consequently, Coolmore wrote to bookshops and online retailers which were selling the book, threatening to hold them liable for any damage suffered and requesting confirmation that they would not sell or distribute the book.

Mr Jones protested against the letters, and invited Coolmore to sue him, “saying that he would defend the book line by line”.

In 2016, Mr Jones issued a plenary summons against Coolmore and applied for injunctions to, inter alia, prevent Coolmore from threatening legal action against the bookshops and websites selling his book. In the High Court in June 2016, Ms Justice Caroline Costello refused to grant the application, the Court of Appeal dismissed Mr Jones’ appeal in June 2017, and in November 2017, Mr Jones’ application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court was refused.

The present proceedings

In March 2018, Mr Jones issued a plenary summons commencing the present proceedings against Coolmore. Mr Jones is seeking damages for defamation contained in the letters sent to booksellers, an injunction restraining Coolmore from threatening legal action against retailers selling the book. This action was prompted by a letter sent to a bookshop in the UK in November 2017.

Thereafter, Coolmore made an application for an order pursuant to Order 19, rule 28 of the Rules of the Superior Courts striking out Mr Jones’ claim “on the grounds that it discloses no reasonable cause of action and/or is frivolous and/or vexatious”. Further and alternatively, Coolmore sought an order pursuant to the inherent jurisdiction of the court dismissing the claim on the grounds that it is an abuse of process and/or otherwise bound to fail and/or is frivolous and/or is vexatious.

Coolmore argued that judgments of the High Court and Court of Appeal already found that the actions complained of are not actionable in law. Coolmore said the previous judgments conclusively established “its right to write to booksellers and distributors, generally, as well as its right to have written the letters which gave rise to the earlier proceedings”.

Mr Justice Allen said that the decision of the High Court in 2016, which was affirmed on appeal, was to the effect that there was no arguable ground on which to prevent Coolmore from writing letters to distributors. He said that the decisions in the previous litigation “finally and conclusively established the right of the defendant to communicate to distributors and booksellers its apprehension that the plaintiff’s book was defamatory of Coolmore and breached Coolmore’s rights and the plaintiff’s obligations of confidentiality and the copyright rights of the third parties.”

Noting Mr Jones’ argument that the letters written in November 2017 were sent after the 2016 action came to an end, Mr Justice Allen said it did not follow that Coolmore’s entitlement to write those letters “was not, or could not have been, decided by the earlier case”. Mr Justice Allen added that, if that entitlement to “have written the letter the subject of these proceedings is not res judicata, the issue as to the defendant’s entitlement in principle to write such letters has been finally and conclusively determined”.

Mr Justice Allen was satisfied that Mr Jones sought to relitigate Coolmore’s entitlement in principle to write to distributors, and that this was vexatious. He said that the 2017 letter was in substantially the same terms as those subject to the 2016 action, and that the motive and purpose in writing the letter was the same as that previously found to be a legitimate legal purpose.

Finding that Mr Jones’ case was bound to fail, Mr Justice Allen concluded that the action was frivolous.

Granting the order sought by Coolmore, Mr Justice Allen said that to allow the action to proceed would expose Coolmore to the trouble and expense of defending it and would be a waste of court time.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019



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