Williams appealing defamation decision

Jordan Williams has announced he is going to appeal the judgment to set aside the jury decision in the defamation case Williams v Craig, saying he doesn’t want witnesses to have to go through a new trial and an appeal is “the best way forward”. His other option was to walk away with nothing but a huge legal bill.

In general for the public I think this is a good path to take, as the Court of Appeal will help clarify issues of defamation and of appropriate awards.

In September 2016 a jury awarded Williams a total of $1.27 million having found that he was defamed on two counts by Colin Craig.

On count one, the jury ordered $400,000 be paid in compensation caused for the injury to Williams’ reputation and feelings and $90,000 in punitive damages for Craig’s “flagrant disregard” of Jordan’s rights.

On count two, they ruled Craig pay $650,000 in compensation and $130,000 in punitive damages.

At the time Nick R (a lawyer) commented at Kiwiblog:

Court of Appeal can reduce any award of damages it considers to be manifestly excessive. It has done so before for jury awards in defamation cases. The CA has previously indicated that damages in defamation cases in NZ should be modest in the absence of evidence of actual pecuniary loss. That’s why I expect them to reduce this award, potentially by quite a lot.

Immediately following the verdicts Craig’s counsel requested that Judge Katz defer entering judgment as they intended applying to have the jury’s verdict set aside, so the judge deferred entering judgment.

Craig’s counsel subsequently applied to have the verdict set aside, and six months later, on 12 April 2017, Judge Katz delivered a judgment ruling that the damages awards were so high that they constituted a miscarriage of justice.

[109] …I am satisfied that the damages award is well outside the range that could reasonably have been justified in all the circumstances of the case. The consequence is that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. The jury’s verdicts must therefore be set aside and a retrial ordered, unless both parties are willing to consent to my substituting a new damages award in place of the jury’s award.

Result

[112] The parties are to file memoranda by 3.00 pm on Wednesday 26 April 2017 advising whether they consent to the Court substituting its own award of damages for the jury’s award, pursuant to s 33 of the Act. If confirmation is not received by that date that both parties consent to such a course, then I order that the jury’s verdicts be set aside and the proceedings be set down for a re-trial on the first available date that is convenient to senior counsel.

Craig immediately indicated he would not consent to the Court substituting it’s own award of damages, and it has now been confirmed that he has advised the court that he wouldn’t consent, and Williams put out a press release saying he didn’t want another trial, but would instead appeal Judge Katz’s judgment.

Statement from Jordan Williams

Lawyers for Jordan Williams are appealing the judgment setting aside last year’s jury verdict in the Williams v Craig defamation proceedings.

Mr Williams says, “Colin Craig argued that the jury’s damages award was too high. The judge agreed but the High Court is only able to reset the damages if both parties agree.”

“Last week Colin Craig’s lawyers told Justice Katz that Colin Craig was not willing to have her determine the damages; they want a full retrial.”

“I don’t want Rachel MacGregor or my mother or any other of my witnesses to have to go through it all again. The jury made clear findings. At every stage Mr Craig has wanted to stretch things out. We have no assurance he would not appeal after a new trial. So an appeal now could get to the key issues directly. It is the best way forward.”

It probably is the best way forward for Williams, but it has risks.

A new trial would presumably mean that there was no way that Williams could recover any costs from the first trial, and a new award would likely be significantly lower given Judge Katz’s judgment. Williams’ counsel would have had to seriously consider claiming significantly lower damages to avoid a repeat of the first trial.

NZ Herald have reported a response from Craig in: Jordan Williams appeals to try to avoid retrial in Colin Craig defamation case

Craig said Williams had every right to appeal, but he believed a retrial was the right way forward.

He said Justice Katz’s decision said a miscarriage of justice had occurred so he was not willing to accept the jury’s decision he had defamed Williams.

But Judge Katz said that the miscarriage of justice was due to the damages award being “well outside the range that could reasonably have been justified in all the circumstances of the case”, the Judge did not reject the jury’s decision that Craig had defamed Williams.

[110] In relation to Mr Craig’s second ground of challenge to the jury’s verdicts, I reject the submission that there was no evidence, or insufficient evidence, to support the jury’s finding that he had lost his qualified privilege…As a result, there is no basis for entering judgment in favour of Mr Craig (as opposed to ordering a retrial).

So on to an appeal. The Court of Appeal is limited on what it can rule on, I think just on points of law in the judgment. So presumably Williams will ask for the setting aside to be overruled. I don’t know if the amount of damages can be changed on appeal, or if it’s an all or nothing situation.

Judge Katz took months before delivering her Judgment, and is likely to have anticipated a likely appeal, so is likely to have taken a lot of care in her Judgment. That doesn’t rule out having made a mistake in law, but it may narrow the grounds for appeal.

In the meantime there is one other matter from her judgment that I don’t know if it is still relevant or not, costs.

[113] This outcome is likely to raise some difficult costs issues. Leave is accordingly reserved to file costs memoranda in relation to both the trial and the present application, if costs cannot be agreed. Any memorandum on behalf of Mr Williams is to be filed by 5 May 2017. Any memorandum on behalf of Mr Craig is to be filed by 19 May 2017. Counsel are to indicate in their memoranda whether a hearing is sought in respect of costs.

I have no idea what can or may happen with this, given the verdict has been set aside. Perhaps we will find out next month. Or perhaps it will have to wait for the outcome of the appeal.

The Judge Katz decision: http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/cases/williams-v-craig/@@images/fileDecision

Difficulties for Williams

A damning post by Peter Aranyi on the Judge’s setting aside of the jury award of ‘excessive damages’ in the Jordan Williams v Colin Craig defamation case: About that Jordan Williams damages award…

This highlights how damning Judge Katz’s ruling was.

Williams nor has some difficult decisions to make. Craig has indicated that he won’t agree to allowing the judge to determine damages, so this leaves three options (that I can think of):

  • A new trial
  • Walk away
  • Appeal Judge Katz’s ruling

Williams and his legal team have incurred large costs that I presume cannot be claimed off his opponent in the trial already held, unless Craig agrees to the judge deciding damages (he understandably doesn’t agree to that) and also costs, or if Williams wins an appeal and gets a substantial damages award plus costs.

If the new trial option is taken then I presume no costs can be sought on the case that has been set aside, so Jordan has an unrecoverable big bill before he starts a new case.

In a new trial a number of claims by Williams can’t (surely) be repeated after Katz pointed out that they were false and that Williams had lied.

So a new trial would have less material to claim on.

And Judge Katz has set a benchmark indication of appropriate costs that are far less than what the last trial jury awarded.

There’s a chance that Williams would lose altogether. Or he could win small – and not get anything like a recovery on his costs over the two trials.

Obviously walking away would also be costly for Williams.

He and his legal team have some decisions to make. The risks of losing are higher, and the chances of coming out ahead financially are doubtful.

And Williams’ reputation has been severely damaged, more so from his own actions than Craig’s.

I expect he will be watching Craig V Slater with interest – and possibly trepidation – before making a decision on what to do.

Dirty politics may have succeeded in killing off Craig’s political ambitions, but it has also resulted in self inflicted wounds on Williams too, in both the political and legal worlds.