Appeal Court affirms Junior Sammy libel lawsuit against radio station

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Junior Sammy
– Ansel Jebodh

THE COURT of Appeal has upheld a judge’s ruling in a libel lawsuit won by contractor Junior Sammy against a radio station for statements made by its hosts in 2016.

Presiding over the appeal were Justices of Appeal Vasheist Kokaram, Malcolm Holdip and Carla Brown-Antoine. Kokaram delivered the unanimous ruling on July 2.

In 2018, Justice Frank Seepersad ruled in Sammy’s favour and ordered More FM to pay $472,500 for the statements made by Andy Williams and Lennox Smith, hosts of its Ground Report programme in November 2016. The lawsuit was filed by Sammy, Junior Sammy Contractors Ltd, Jusamco Pavers Ltd and Sammy Multilift Services. At the hearing of the claim, the talk show hosts entered a consent order and the trial proceeded against More FM.

In his ruling, Seepersad held the radio broadcasts constituted libel, the words used on the programme were defamatory and, as owner of the station, More FM was equally liable.

More FM appealed. The radio station’s attorneys argued the trial judge was wrong to determine the cause of action was a libel as the broadcast was the spoken word so could only constitute slander. However, the station further argued the hosts were independent contractors so More FM could not be held liable for their unscripted broadcasts. The station’s attorneys also contended Sammy and his companies were not identified and the judge failed to take into account a public apology by the hosts making the award of damages disproportionately high.

In dismissing More FM’s appeal, Kokaram said, “The beauty of the common law lies in its adaptive ability to meet the needs of our evolving society and should recognise this broadcast as a libel.

“In my view, a falsehood broadcast on the radio flies instantaneously and insidiously to a large audience and can be captured in permanent form through various technological means.”

He said in this case, the broadcast was recorded on the station’s servers and live-streamed on the internet.

“It was maintained in a permanent form capable of reproduction. If the purpose of defamation law is to protect the individual’s reputation from the damage caused by false words, I see no difference if these words were spoken spontaneously to a large audience or from a typed script.

“The same intent to malign and appeal to the senses is present, the wide breadth and impact of its dissemination certainly devastating.

“Such a form of publishing defamatory content flies seamlessly and rapidly destroys a person’s reputation with very little to salvage whenever the truth comes limping behind it.”

Kokaram also said, “It may seem strange to the purist that a publication that is heard can be a libel.

“But this is not a speech in an auditorium or to a crowd on a megaphone.

“This is a publication to such a wide audience and embodied a permanent form as discussed above. It breaks the mould of the traditional views of ‘permanency’.”

Kokaram said it was time to view broadcasts in a different category and abolish the distinction between libel and slander.

In their ruling, the judges dismissed More FM’s arguments that the hosts were independent contractors and held the station was liable for damages despite the settlement by the hosts. The Appeal Court said More FM also could not rely on the apology to reduce the award. Attorneys Theresa Hadad and Chanka Persadsingh represented More FM while Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, SC, Ronnie Bissessar, SC, and Varin Gopaul-Gosine represented Sammy and his companies.