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Supreme Court dismisses Hagaman defamation appeal, orders costs payment to Little

Tuesday 13th February 2018

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The Supreme Court has dismissed an attempt by the estate of Earl Hagaman to continue a defamation claim against former Labour leader Andrew Little after Hagaman's death.

Hagaman and his wife, Lianna-Merie, known as Lani, sued Little for statements he made about a hotel management contract in Niue that was awarded to Earl Hagaman's company Scenic Hotel. The contract was awarded a few weeks after Hagaman donated $101,000 to the National Party during their 2014 election campaign. Little called for the Auditor-General to look into the matter, saying the "revelations about the Scenic Hotel Group and its resort contract in Niue stink to high heaven". 

In September 2016, the Auditor-General said that from the information available, there had been a "standard procurement process, with reasoned and documented analysis for the selection of Scenic Hotel Group as the hotel operator for the resort and for the subsequent investment of New Zealand international development assistance funds in expanding the resort."

In April 2017, the High Court judge ruled that Little's statements had the defence of qualified privilege, and the jury found that all of the claims made by Lani Hagaman failed and two of the six claims made by Earl Hagaman failed, but could not agree on the other four of Mr Hagaman’s claims. In November 2017, the Court of Appeal found that the appeal had not survived Hagaman's death, which occurred in May 2017.

The Supreme Court, in a ruling released today, backed up that appeal court finding. It said the answers given by the jury in the High Court did not amount to a special verdict, as the jury could not agree on the question of whether Little had been motivated by ill-will towards Earl Hagaman or had taken improper advantage of the occasion of publication, nor could the jury agree on damages.

The highest court also dismissed two other intended arguments from the Hagamans' lawyers: that an appeal becomes a cause of action vested in the deceased that survives for the benefit of his or her estate, and that the common law rule that personal actions die with the person should be changed. 

"Given Parliament’s intervention in the Law Reform Act and its clear decision to preserve the rule in relation to defamation, we do not see this as an argument that has sufficient likelihood of success to justify the grant of leave," the court said.

The Supreme Court ordered the Hagaman estate to pay $2,500 to Little.

(BusinessDesk)

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