Hotelier Vincent O’Toole awarded €50,000 for libel

Waterford City hotelier Vincent O’Toole was awarded €50,000 libel damages and costs in the High Court last Friday after a jury found that a reference to his Maryland Hotel in The Sunday World wrongly meant he was a brothel-keeper.

Mr. O’Toole (80), a former master mariner and successful horse breeder, said he had been vindicated in bringing the case. But when asked what he thought of the award his response to the amount was ‘you would put that on a horse’. In the jury’s opinion the amount was alright, but not in his.

He said he felt disillusioned, but people knew in their hearts that the reference to his hotel was a lie. The article was still demeaning his standing in Waterford and elsewhere, he added.

Mr. O’Toole had told the court that he was a man ‘so conservative he was boring’ and the article, carried in The Sunday World on August 1, 2004, under the headline Suir You Couldn’t Make out A Word, left him ‘appalled’. He said he did not regard the article as a joke, or ‘skittish’.

It referred to people in Waterford speaking ‘a foreign language’ and to a website having come up with ‘the first ever Waterford dictionary’, with entries including one which described ‘maryland, the’ as ‘an infamous small hotel in the red light district of Waterford city. Colloquial term for a brothel.’

Mr. O’Toole said the article was not funny, but was hurtful, malicious, untrue and ignorant. He found that people in Waterford spoke quite well and nobody there ever spoke mumbo-jumbo to him.

He said his hotel was named both after his wife Mary and Maryland in the United States, where he had spent some time during his 18-year maritime career with Irish Shipping, where he rose to the rank of captain.

He rejected as a lie and ‘verging on madness’ any suggestion that ‘Maryland’ was Waterford City slang for a brothel.

He said the hotel had been named Maryland in 1959 and operated initially as a bed and breakfast before becoming a hotel in the 1960s, attracting all sorts of guests, including judges and opera-goers. He considered the name Maryland easy to remember.

Mr. O’Toole said he couldn’t believe it when he was phoned on August 1, 2004. He was in bed when the phone rang and he was asked if he had read The Sunday World. He said he did not buy that paper and was told his hotel was being called ‘a whorehouse’. He bought the paper and was ‘absolutely appalled’, he said. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’.

He asked his solicitor to take up the matter and his solicitor wrote on August 4 to the newspaper, which had not contacted him before publishing the article.

He said the article had an appalling effect. People were laughing and jeering and ‘it all turned into a rotten business’. He lived in the hotel with his wife and family and men were knocking on the door at night.

Favours

Being friendly, he would invite them in and some would eventually ask him if there were any ‘extra favours’ and would ask for prostitutes. He would call the gardai and the men would run. He said he called the gardai over and over, but they could do nothing about it.

Mr. O’Toole said there was no red light district in Waterford as far as he was concerned. Some people had booked out of his hotel after hearing whispers that they were staying in a whorehouse, he said.

He regarded letters from The Sunday World after the incident as indicating ‘concocted counterfeit concern’ and as an attempt to buy him off. He wanted to be fully vindicated.

He was well known around Waterford and around Ireland. He had sought recognition for the composer Vincent Wallace, after whom several prominent buildings in Waterford were now named.

In cross-examination, Mr. Eoin McCullough SC, for the newspaper, said there was no suggestion by the paper that the Maryland Hotel was a brothel and, in those circumstances, he wanted to know from Mr. O’Toole what they were doing in court.

Mr. O’Toole said he wanted it understood there was absolutely no truth whatever in the brothel allegation.

Mr. McCullough said there was no suggestion by the newspaper that Mr. O’Toole had anything to do with running a brothel.

Mr. O’Toole said he wished to get ‘this horror out of my life’. Without prejudice to such denials, The Sunday World said it had made an offer of amends which was not accepted by Mr. O’Toole.

Smart-alec

Closing speeches in the action concluded yesterday and Mr. John Gordon SC, for Mr. O’Toole, said the article was ‘salacious’, printed beside a picture of a nubile young lady intended to engage the reader. It was a smart-alec title for a smart-alec article and was a lousy thing to do to his client.

There was only one Maryland Hotel in Waterford and the only thing a reasonable reader could take from the article was that there was a little hotel in Waterford called the Maryland which was a brothel. ‘What worse thing could you say about anybody’s premises’, asked counsel.

The jury was entitled to note the newspaper had not called any evidence in the case, said Mr. Gordon. Why should Mr. O’Toole, a decent man in his old age, be put through the wringer like this by a newspaper which casually decided not to call a witness, he further asked.

The case had been dogged since August 2004 by the fact that The Sunday World had consistently refused to do the honourable thing and take responsibility for what happened, said Mr. Gordon. On the one hand, it had offered a conditional apology and, on the other, insisted it had not defamed Mr. O’Toole.

Later in 2004 it had suggested the name ‘Maryland’ was synonymous with ‘brothel’ in Waterford, that they had checked that with two sources and that Mr. O’Toole must have known this and had been foolish to call his hotel the Maryland.

This was an aggressive and insulting position to take, especially where the newspaper had not since attempted to stand over any of that, said counsel. Now it was accepting without reservation that Maryland was not and never had been understood to be slang in Waterford for a brothel.

The most elementary of checks carried out prior to publication would have established such a suggestion was complete rubbish, he said.

Respectable

Mr. McCullough said the jury should conclude that a reasonable reader would regard the article as a joke and a spoof, not intended to be taken seriously, even if they didn’t consider it to be in good taste. Any reasonable person who knew Mr. O’Toole – who was not named n the article – could not think the article seriously meant he was a brothel-keeper.

However, even if the jury took that view, they should only award a sum of damages which was very small indeed, said Mr. McCullough. This was because Mr. O’Toole had said the case was about vindicating his good name and correspondence between solicitors showed that, from the very beginning, The Sunday World was willing to apologise to Mr. O’Toole.

It had suggested various forms of apology and asked Mr. O’Toole to forward his own proposed apology. When he did not do so, the newspaper had printed a unilateral apology.

The newspaper also accepted Mr. O’Toole was a person of the utmost respectability and probity who had himself said he was so conservative as to be boring, counsel added.

He was not suggesting the jury should not have sympathy for Mr. O’Toole, who clearly took a dim view of the matter. However, there was no evidence the article had damaged his hotel’s business.

Instructed by John O’Donohoe of William Hackett & Co Waterside, Waterford, Mr. O’Toole’s legal team was Senior Counsel – John Gordon SC; 2nd Senior Counsel – Seamus O’Tuathaill SC; Junior Counsel – Sean O’Siothchain BL.

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