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Journalist Matt Peltier and Q95 FM radio loses appeal case against Matthew LeBlanc

The Court of Appeal of the Eastern Caribbean has dismissed an appeal by Journalist Matt Peltier and Q95 FM Radio against former Labour Commissioner Matthew LeBlanc.

Brief Facts

On 10th April 2015, the respondent initiated proceedings in the lower court seeking, in
summary, damages including aggravated and/or exemplary damages for libel (or
slander) for the words broadcasted. On 14th May 2015, as the appellants had failed to file a defense, the respondent filed a request for judgment in default of defense. This was granted by the court on 22nd May 2015. On 16th July 2019, the appellants applied to consolidate this claim with another claim brought by the respondent against Mr. Honore.

The assessment of damages came on for hearing before the master who on
17th July 2019, determined that the application for default judgment had already been
dealt with, it was too late to consolidate the claim. The master then proceeded to hear
evidence from the witnesses and submissions from both counsel and reserved his decision
on the assessment.
In a judgment dated 5th February 2020, the master stated that since the matter before him was an assessment of damages and not a trial on liability, the court must assume that the facts pleaded have been established and must therefore proceed to assess damages on
that basis. The Master found that the allegations seriously undermined the integrity of the
office held by the respondent and brought his character and professional reputation into
disrepute. He also found that the broadcast was of very wide circulation and the respondent’s evidence was that he was embarrassed and seriously affected by the slander of his reputation. After examining the comparable decisions within the Eastern Caribbean, the Master awarded $120,000.00 to the respondent in general and aggravated damages.
Being dissatisfied with the master’s decision, the appellants appealed. On the appeal the
following issues arose for determination: (i) whether the learned master was correct in stating that, on an assessment of damages, the court is to assume that the facts pleaded have been established and proceed to assess damages on that basis; (ii) whether the learned master erred in not considering any of the mitigating factors submitted by the appellants; and (iii) whether the amount of damages awarded was disproportionately high.

Held: dismissing the appeal, affirming the decision of the learned Master and ordering that
two-thirds of the prescribed costs in the court below be awarded to the respondent on the
appeal.

The learned Master properly considered the following relevant factors: (1) the gravity
of the publication which would seriously undermine the integrity of the respondent
and the office he held at the material time; (2) the broadcast was on the radio and of
wide circulation; (3) the defamatory statements were rebroadcasted by the appellants
after they had received correspondence from the legal practitioner for the respondent
seeking a retraction of the defamatory statements and an apology; (4) the refusal by
the appellants to apologize or retract the defamatory statements; (5) the standing of
the respondent and the impact on his reputation as a Minister of the Gospel; and (6)
the embarrassment and effect the publication had on the respondent. While the
award is on the higher end of the scale, no basis can be found to interfere with the
award of damages made by the learned master. The learned Master took into account the relevant factors in the exercise of his discretion to make the award of damages.
The appellants have not succeeded in persuading this Court that: (1) the award of
damages made by the learned master was excessive or that the sum of $120,000.00
awarded to the respondent by the learned master was so high that it must be wholly
erroneous estimate of the damages payable; or (2) the learned master erred such
that his discretion in the award of damages should be set aside by this Court. This
ground of appeal also fails.

Disposition
Based on the foregoing, I would dismiss the appeal and affirm the decision of the
learned master and order that two-thirds of the prescribed costs in the court below
are awarded to the respondent in this appeal.

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