No jury for Wag­ner, Jones

Defama­tion case con­sid­ered too com­plex

Gatton Star - - NEWS - John Weekes John.weekes@news­re­gional­me­dia.com.au

A HIGH-PRO­FILE defama­tion suit in­volv­ing broad­caster Alan Jones and the wealthy Wag­ner fam­ily will be heard without a jury.

De­nis, John, Neill and Joe Wag­ner sued Mr Jones, Ra­dio 4BC Bris­bane, jour­nal­ist Nick Cater, and Har­bour Ra­dio over com­ments made after the dev­as­tat­ing Jan­uary 2011 Queens­land floods.

But the Wag­n­ers ar­gued the com­plex­ity of the case meant a jury could face hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual le­gal de­ci­sions.

In a de­ci­sion handed down last Tues­day, Jus­tice Peter Applegarth told the Bris­bane Supreme Court the case would be heard without a jury.

“In my view, the size and com­plex­ity of the jury’s enor­mous task presents an un­ac­cept­ably high risk that it will be un­able to per­form its task, de­spite its best ef­forts and de­spite the as­sis­tance of the trial judge in pro­vid­ing redi­rec­tions and fur­ther as­sis­tance,” Jus­tice Applegarth said in his new judg­ment.

“Given the num­ber and com­plex­ity of the ques­tions, there is a very real risk that a jury will be un­able to agree upon, and there­fore an­swer, a large num­ber of ques­tions.”

A jury would face an “enor­mous” bur­den, the Jus­tice said, “not sim­ply in con­sid­er­ing many weeks of lay and ex­pert ev­i­dence about the Gran­tham floods, as well as ev­i­dence about the con­struc­tion of an air­port and al­leged con­spir­a­cies and cover-ups.”

“It will be re­quired to an­swer hun­dreds of ques­tions. The par­ties can­not point to a case in which a civil jury has faced such a task.”

The Jus­tice said it was yet to be seen what ex­pert ev­i­dence the broad­cast­ers would call.

“It would be ex­tra­or­di­nary if the de­fen­dants pleaded the de­fences of truth which they have without first se­cur­ing ex­pert ev­i­dence in writ­ing from a suit­ably qual­i­fied, well-in­formed ex­pert,” Jus­tice Applegarth added.

He said the Wag­n­ers were su­ing over 32 “pub­li­ca­tions” and claimed a to­tal of 98 im­pu­ta­tions.

Ear­lier this year, Jus­tice Applegarth de­scribed an “es­sen­tial st­ing” to what the Wag­n­ers claimed were defama­tions.

The Wag­n­ers had ar­gued some broad­casts con­tained “im­pu­ta­tions” that wrongly sug­gested they were to blame for the deaths of 12 peo­ple, or for the deadly flood when a quarry wall or levee breached or col­lapsed.

But lawyers for Mr Jones, Mr Cater and the ra­dio com­pa­nies re­jected claims those mean­ings were in fact con­veyed in the broad­casts.

As News­re­gional pre­vi­ously re­ported, a 2014 com­mis­sion of in­quiry cleared the Wag­n­ers of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the floods.

Mr Jones has main­tained his ac­tions were those of a jour­nal­ist act­ing in a com­mu­nity’s best in­ter­ests after the tragedy.

PHOTO: KEVIN FARMER

COURT CASE: De­nis, John, Neill and Joe Wag­ner are su­ing Alan Jones (pic­tured), Ra­dio 4BC Bris­bane, jour­nal­ist Nick Cater, and Har­bour Ra­dio over com­ments made after the dev­as­tat­ing Jan­uary 2011 Queens­land floods.

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