A Co Down businessman described in a newspaper as a “Scrooge” after his hotel went into administration is to be awarded £50,000 in libel damages, a High Court judge ruled on Tuesday.
Gordon Coulter sued the Sunday World, claiming it had portrayed him as callously discharging staff just before Christmas.
Mr Coulter, 84, is also to receive legal costs of the case centred on the temporary closure of the Kilmorey Arms Hotel in Kilkeel back in December 2014.
Awarding compensation, Mr Justice Stephens held it was a serious libel of a businessman who had no other option but to put the company into administration.
Proceedings centred on an article that claimed sacked workers at the 175-year-old hotel were left with no pay.
It stated that Mr Coulter, a former shareholder in the Kilmorey Arms, “has been branded a Scrooge for putting his staff on the street a week before Christmas”.
His lawyers argued the newspaper description meant he had money but out of meanness was not prepared to spend it to save the jobs at the hotel - which has since reopened under new ownership.
As part of its defence the Sunday World denied it was defamatory to refer to someone as a Scrooge.
Mr Coulter, a former president of Kilkeel Chamber of Commerce, once ran companies employing up to 500 people in the area.
Awarded an MBE for his services, he has also been heavily involved in economic and environmental regeneration of the fishing port town.
During evidence at the trial, the businessman said he was “gutted” by the article he described as heartbreaking and unjustified given his lifetime of work in the local community.
He claimed it had been the worst day of his life when he read it, leaving him reluctant to leave his home and being reclusive for months.
The court heard the story was especially hurtful because he believed it indicated his MBE was undeserved and should be taken off him.
Accepting Mr Coulter’s “devastation”, Mr Justice Stephens said: “He felt that the honour, which was public recognition of his service to the community, was being called into question by the article on the basis that he had acted in a totally inappropriate way towards that community.
“The suggestion that to be described as a Scrooge was just journalistic hyperbole was the opposite of a clear and positive recognition by the defendant of the fact that the plaintiff did not obtain any financial reward for his involvement in the company and lost money.”
In 2000 the businessman was part of a group that took over the Kilmorey Arms, Kilkeel’s only hotel, in a bid to aid the town’s economic growth.
For the next 14 years none of the shareholders received any financial benefits.
By December 2014 the hotel was still running, but at losses of up to £7,500 a week.
With a bank overdraft at its limit and suppliers refusing to extend credit, directors and shareholders decided they could no longer trade through the Christmas period.
Following the appointment of an administrator staff contracts were terminated.
Mr Justice Stephens pointed out: “The plaintiff did not dismiss the members of staff. That was done by the administrator.”
Staff had been paid earlier in the month and informed once administration was confirmed, he concluded.
The article also referred to an unidentified member of staff claiming to have called at Mr Coulter’s home looking for answers, and a customer making assertions over a Christmas booking.
But rejecting their reliability, the judge held: “I consider that the steps to verify the information provided by the sources did not amount to responsible journalism.”
Awarding a £50,000 payout, he added: “There was no recognition by the defendant that information had in fact been provided to all the employees nor was there any acceptance that the two sources were incorrect in that the plaintiff was not a Scrooge but rather had made a substantial financial commitment losing money and not receiving any financial reward over a 14 year period.”