Northern Ireland

44k libel damages for former Enniskillen health chief

High Court
Image caption The case was heard at Belfast High Court

A senior health official wrongly linked to an alleged cover-up over the death of a child in hospital a decade ago is to receive £44,000 in libel damages.

A judge ruled that newspaper articles examining the case of 17-month-old Lucy Crawford defamed Bridget O'Rawe.

Ms O'Rawe, a former director at the Sperrin Lakeland Trust, also secured legal costs from the publishers of the Impartial Reporter.

Her lawyers said the articles had a "devastating" impact on her.

Inquest

They added that the newspaper did not take up an opportunity to apologise to Ms O'Rawe.

She claimed the articles associated her with an alleged cover-up by the trust, and that they wrongly stated that she was the subject of a police investigation regarding the child's treatment.

Lucy Crawford died in April 2000 following treatment at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen.

The toddler was admitted complaining of vomiting and diarrhoea but an inquest later found that a drip she was put on had been mismanaged.

She suffered brain swelling and later died after being transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

The claim was defended on grounds including qualified privilege of publishing in the public interest and fair comment.

Delivering judgment on the action on Tuesday, Mr Justice Gillen ruled that Ms O'Rawe had been defamed.

Conform

He said it would lower the plaintiff in the estimation of people if she was the subject of a criminal investigation regarding the child's treatment and the subsequent cover-up concerning it, "particularly where a file of her involvement and the evidence implicating her in that cover-up was compiled by a respected police officer and sent to the DPP."

"The fact that the article makes clear that the prosecution in fact was not instituted merely dilutes the effect but does not deflect from the defamatory meaning," he added.

"I also consider it defamatory to suggest that someone such as the plaintiff was part of a management cover-up by the trust which included misleading the child's family as to the true causes of death and being involved in the 'sweet talking' of a senior paediatrician to produce a report on the death which covered up why the child had died."

Mr Justice Gillen said the newspaper failed to conform with the standards of responsible journalism by failing to seek a comment from Ms O'Rawe or to get her side of the story.

He accepted the failure to offer an apology was not through any malice, but that it did aggravate her feelings of distress and concern.

The judge held that there was mitigation in the contextual background and said: "The plaintiff was a member of the senior management in the trust as Director of Corporate Services and there had been a police investigation into management of the trust."

He added: "In all the circumstances I have decided to award the plaintiff £44,000, together with her costs."