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Court awards Rowley $475,000
A High Court judge has ordered trade union leader Michael Annisette to pay Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley $475,000 in damages for libel. The payout, one of the highest ever in a defamation case in this country, was ordered by Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh, who delivered a 28-page judgment in Rowley’s favour yesterday. “Not only has it been a continuing stain on his political life, but it has affected his personal and family life, having to address his children’s concerns and embarrassment about the allegations,” Boodoosingh said.
In addition to the damages, Boodoosingh also ordered Annisette, who is president general of the Seamen and Waterfront Workers Trade Union (SWWTU), to pay Rowley’s $160,000 legal bill for bringing the lawsuit. Annisette first made the statements on October 1, 2009, while he was contributing as an Independent senator to the debate on the Validation and Immunity from Proceedings Bill.
Annisette had accused Rowley of engaging in questionable dealings with NH International Caribbean chairman Emile Elias in relation to the Landate Development Project. “In my view, the words complained of in their totality and context inevitably convey an imputation of impropriety or misconduct on the part of the claimant in his public office,” Boodoosingh said.
He noted that the statements were made despite Rowley’s “strong public position on instances of corruption in public life” and the fact that he had been absolved of any wrongdoing by both the Integrity Commission and a commission of enquiry. Boodoosingh ruled that while Annisette’s statement was covered by parliamentary privilege, he became liable for defamation when he adopted and confirmed the comments in a subsequent interview with a newspaper reporter.
“It is important to note that this is not an intrusion by the court into the sphere of parliamentary privilege in circumstances such as the present,” Boodoosingh said. In assessing the damages, Boodoosingh said he considered the position and standing of both parties, the gravity of the allegations, the extent to which the statements were published and Annisette’s conduct.
While acknowledging that banter between opposing politicians was part of parliamentary proceedings, he said: “An independent senator appointed by the President, however, would be seen in a different light, less partisan and less given to unjustified or intemperate attacks.”
In his judgment, Boodoosingh also sought to give advice to political and social commentators who wished to evade similar defamation lawsuits. He said that although members of the public had the right to vigorously criticise public figures, they must always consider “truth, evidence and justification.”
“For what it is worth, it is important for persons in public life and those who commit themselves to public comments about other persons to understand that consequences may follow where loose and unproven statements are made,” Boodoosingh said. Contacted yesterday, Annisette declined to comment on the judgment until he had an opportunity to analyse and discuss it with his attorneys.