KUALA LUMPUR: The decision to stop awarding mega damages for defamation suits was confirmed by the Federal Court yesterday.
A three-judge panel made up of Chief Judge of Malaya Justice Haidar Mohd Noor, Federal Court judge Justice Abdul Malek Ahmad and Court of Appeal judge Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad rejected an application for leave by three lawyers to appeal against the reduction of mega damages awarded to them by a High Court after they had won in a defamation suit.
The judges unanimously dismissed the application by Cheah Cheng Hoc, Teh Meng Teck and Su Tiang Joo – who practised as partners in the firm of Cheah Teh & Su – on the grounds that their case had failed to raise the question of public importance.
They awarded costs to the respondents, Liew Yew Tiam and three others, after hearing arguments by lawyers for both sides.
Datuk R.R. Sethu and Andrew K.L. Ng appeared for the respondents while Datuk N. Chandran, Au Yong Pei Yi and Teh Eng Lay acted for Cheah, Teh and Su.
The plaintiffs had initially been awarded RM1mil by the High Court but on the defendants’ appeal, the Court of Appeal had on Oct 23, 2000 verbally varied the judgment sum to RM100,000.
Court of Appeal judge Justice Gopal Sri Ram, in a 25-page standard-setting judgment, said that the time had come for courts to stop giving out multi-million ringgit damages for libel to ensure that such suits were not used to oppress freedom of expression.
He had also said in the Jan 11, 2001 judgment that the libel case of tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan against freelance journalist M.G.G. Pillai and several others – which set the mega damages trend – was a decision that “has been much misunderstood.”
In the Oct 22, 1994 decision, Tan was awarded a total of RM10mil in damages.
Justice Sri Ram said that the trial judge in Tan’s case had implied in his judgment that injury to reputation was as important as, if not more than, the loss of a limb.
He said that he and fellow judges on the panel had not overlooked “the recent trend in this country of claims and awards in defamation cases running into several million ringgit.”
Other judges on the panel – Justices Siti Norma Yaakob and Abdul Kadir Sulaiman – were in unanimity with Justice Sri Ram to reduce by 90% the damages awarded to the lawyers.