Sydney Morning Herald loses defamation case against Dr John O’Neill, ordered to pay $385,000

The Sydney Morning Herald has lost its defamation case against Dr John O’Neill, and been ordered to pay O’Neill $385,000 in damages.

Dr O’Neill was a ringside doctor for a boxing match between Anthony Mundine and Danny Green. Fairfax columnist Peter FitzSimons wrote a column about the fight published on 10 February 2017, which led to the case against both the publisher and FitzSimons.

Dr O’Neill was the ringside doctor in a match between Anthony Mundine and Danny Green

In the first round of the fight, Green was punched by Mundine, causing him to fall to the ground. Dr O’Neill said that Green was not injured or concussed, and cleared him to continue with the fight. An MRI scan a few days later produced a similar result to a scan conducted two years earlier.

FitzSimons didn’t named Dr O’Neill in the column, but wrote that “a bloke with a bleeding brain was allowed to continue, risking his life”, “Green’s head was in Zone Red”, and “Another serious blow when he’s already concussed, it is no exaggeration to say, could have been fatal”.

FitzSimons wrote the piece as part of his ‘The Fitz Files’ column

Dr O’Neill said that FitzSimons’ column imputed that he incompetently allowed Green to continue fighting despite suffering a bleed on the brain, negligently endangered Green’s life, and was so reckless that he failed to stop the fight.

Justice Lucy McCallum agreed, ruling that the column was defamatory.

“The defamation was significant and Dr O’Neill is entitled to a substantial award of damages,” she said, awarding the doctor $350,000 in general damages and $35,000 in aggravated damages.

“In my view, the defamatory sense of the article as captured in Dr O’Neill’s imputations was clearly conveyed as fact rather than as an expression of opinion. Indeed, in my respectful opinion, the contrary view is barely arguable.”

Justice McCallum added that O’Neill’s reputation was damaged professionally and personally.

“The damage clearly spread among Dr O’Neill’s colleagues and friends, potentially damaging his reputation irreparably in some quarters,” she said.

“The imputations are very serious, striking at the heart of Dr O’Neill’s professional reputation.”

Justice McCallum noted that, had O’Neill been named in the column, the damages awarded to him would have been higher.

Nine, the owner of the former Fairfax mastheads, declined to comment.


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