Jury still deliberating on verdict in Labour leader Andrew Little's defamation trial
The jury in Labour leader Andrew Little's defamation case is still undecided on a verdict, with deliberations set to resume next week.
After more than five hours of discussions and two questions for the judge, the 12 jurors had not concluded whether or not Little had defamed Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman or his wife Lani.
Justice Karen Clark told the jury they could resume deliberations on Monday morning.
The Hagamans are seeking $2.3 million in damages for comments Little made about a $101,000 donation they made to the National Party during the 2014 election, and a contract their Scenic Hotel Group won a month later to manage the Matavai resort in Niue, which receives government funding.
Delivering her summing up to the jury at the High Court earlier on the fifth day of the trial, Clark said they should not be swayed by any prejudice against, or sympathy for, Little or the Hagamans, while their political views should not be a factor.
Clark said the jury could accept some parts of evidence and reject other parts, but should put any previous knowledge of the case out of their minds and rely solely on what was presented during the trial.
The onus was on the Hagamans to prove that Little's comments had the meaning they claimed and that they were defamatory.
However, the Hagamans were only required to prove their case on the balance of probabilities, not beyond reasonable doubt as in a criminal case.
The "crucial first step" to identify the meanings of Little's words, as ordinary, reasonable person would understand them.
The jury had to consider the context of the specific phrases identified by the Hagamans in the wider context of Little's full comments, as "words take their colour from their surroundings".
If they agreed with the Hagamans' interpretation of the phrases, they then had to decide whether they were defamatory and had lowered their reputation in the eyes of right-thinking people.
As Lani Hagaman had not been named by Little in any of his comments, the jury had to decide whether an ordinary, fair-minded reader would identify her as being criticised.
Clark said she had ruled that Little's comments were protected by qualified privilege as he had a duty, "whether legal or social or moral", to comment.
However, that defence could be "defeated or effectively negated" if the jury found his comments were predominantly motivated by ill will targeted directly at the Hagamans, or if he had taken improper advantage of his privilege.
Speaking about the issue of damages, Clark said they were about vindicating the plaintiff to the public and providing some compensation for wrongdoing.
Defamation cases like this were relatively rare in New Zealand, and had to be considered on the specific facts. Damages awarded in other trials provided "no reliable guideline or benchmark" to the jury, she said.
Instead, jurors had to use common sense and good judgement when setting a figure, ensuring it was fair and appropriate.
Exemplary, or punitive, damages could only be awarded if Little had acted "in flagrant disregard" to the rights of the Hagamans.
It was important that the jury "not get carried away" in terms of any sum, while they should avoid "doubling up" with general damages and exemplary damages.
Clark encouraged the jury to reach a unanimous decision, but said there were some circumstances where a majority verdict could be delivered, provided at least nine jurors agreed.