A newspaper has won its appeal against a £50,000 libel award to a Co Down businessman referred to as “a Scrooge”.
Senior judges ruled that descriptions of Gordon Coulter in a Sunday World article were wrongly interpreted as statements of fact.
They set aside the original finding and ordered a retrial of the defamation action.
The newspaper is also to receive its legal costs in challenging the verdict against it.
Mr Coulter, 85, sued the Sunday World over a report published after his hotel went into administration in December 2014.
He claimed it had portrayed him as callously discharging workers during the temporary closure of the Kilmorey Arms in Kilkeel.
The article stated that he “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.
Last year a High Court judge awarded £50,000 damages for what he held to be a serious libel of a respected businessman who had no other option but to put the company into administration.
The Sunday World brought in top London media barrister Gavin Millar in a bid to overturn the decision.
In a wide-ranging challenge in the Court of Appeal he argued that the references to Scrooge were matters of comment rather than fact.
Lord Justice Gillen, sitting with Lord Justices Weatherup and Weir, agreed with his assertion that it was a figure of speech not to be taken literally.
“Obviously the person is not literally Scrooge because that is a fictional character in a Dickens novella,” he said.
“In terms it amounts to an applied conclusion or judgment on that person and as such amounts to comment rather than a statement of fact.
“Similar situations might arise where someone is termed a ‘Hitler’ or a ‘Trotsky’.”
The original trial erroneously held that the Scrooge reference, and associated meanings of being callous and lacking Christmas spirit, amounted to statements of fact, the court ruled.
“We have therefore concluded that the learned trial judge misdirected himself in this present case,” Lord Justice Gillen confirmed.
Although other grounds of challenge were rejected, that determination alone was enough for the appeal to be allowed.
The judge added: “We therefore conclude that the order cannot stand and should be set aside.
“The proper course is to direct a retrial of the action.”