Labour leader Andrew Little cleared of defamation against Lani Hagaman, new trial possible over Earl Hagaman comments
Labour leader Andrew Little has been cleared of defaming Lani Hagaman, but could yet face another trial over comments about her husband Earl.
The jury, in the Wellington High Court, ruled that Little had made comments defamatory of Earl Hagaman in one case, but could not reach a decision on whether he was covered by qualified privilege.
After more than 13 hours of deliberations across two days, the nine men and three women found by a majority verdict that Little had not defamed Lani Hagaman in any of the six statements he made about a Niue hotel deal.
It ruled one of Little's six statements had been defamatory of Earl Hagaman. However, because it could not reach a decision on whether the defence of qualified privilege applied to Little – in essence, whether he had abused his public duty to provide comment as leader of the Opposition – they did not get to the point of deciding on any damages.
The jurors ruled one of Little's statements was not defamatory of Earl Hagaman, and could not reach a majority verdict on the four remaining statements.
The Hagamans were 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.
The verdict came after the jury indicated it could not reach a unanimous verdict, and was instructed to reach a majority decision if possible.
After discussions across Friday and Monday, the jury foreperson said the 12 members could not reach agreement on the first question of a four-step process in whether Little defamed Scenic Hotel Group founder Earl Hagaman or his wife Lani.
However, the foreperson said the jury believed it could reach a majority verdict - where at least nine people agree - for some of the allegedly defamatory statements, as is allowed in civil cases.
Justice Karen Clark instructed the jury to carry deliberating on the instances where they could reach a majority verdict until such a point as they were no longer able to agree by a majority.
Delivering her summing up to the jury at the High Court earlier on Friday, Clark said they should not be swayed by any prejudice against, or sympathy for, Little or the Hagamans, and their political views should not be a factor.
It was important that the jury "not get carried away" in terms of any potential damages, while they should avoid "doubling up" with general damages and exemplary damages.