Professor's record $2.4m libel payout quashed on appeal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 October, 1995, 12:00am

A TOP economist's record-breaking $2.4 million libel award was overturned yesterday after the Court of Appeal said it was excessive and could jeopardise the right to freedom of expression.

Eastweek magazine was ordered to pay the sum to Professor Steven Cheung Ng-sheong after publishing an article claiming he skipped classes.

It also suggested the head of the University of Hong Kong School of Economics and Finance refused to pose for a department photograph.

In the first libel action in Hong Kong to be heard by a jury for more than 80 years, Professor Cheung complained the article had seriously damaged his reputation.

The jury agreed the piece entitled 'Professor Cheung Ng-sheong. Silence is Golden' was defamatory and awarded him an unprecedented $2.4 million.

But yesterday the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial following an appeal by Eastweek.

In a judgment yesterday, Mr Justice Nazareth said the damages were 'out of all proportion' for the comparatively trivial libel.

The massive sum also set a dangerous precedent and could endanger freedom of expression.

A second jury will now assess new damages.

Libel actions in Hong Kong, unlike Britain, are usually heard by a judge sitting alone. Awards in the past have often been below $100,000.

Although British juries are not given guidelines on libel awards made by judges, Mr Justice Nazareth said Hong Kong did not have to follow suit and juries should be given guidance.

He said: 'The libel is not a serious libel by any standard. Moreover it was corrected within two weeks.

'Given the high standing of the plaintiff and the petty nature of the defamatory statements . . . it seems to me a very minor fraction of the $2.4 million awarded would amply serve to compensate for any injury to his reputation and esteem.

'An award of the size in question is likely to have a serious effect on the freedom of expression and cannot be regarded as necessary to protect the reputation of the plaintiff.' He said: 'No reasonable jury could have thought the award necessary to compensate the plaintiff and to re-establish his reputation.' The court was also concerned about an item published in Next magazine during the hearing which claimed the professor's legal bill would come to $2.4 million.

Mr Justice Nazareth added: 'The coincidence is so remarkable it is difficult to believe the sum mentioned in the Next article did not have something to do with the sum they so remarkably settled upon.

'No other explanation or even suggestion has been made to account for it.' Mr Justice Mayo said: 'The damages should have been compensatory and designed to assuage the respondent's hurt feelings and loss of dignity.

'They should not have been calculated on the basis of punishing the magazine.

'Whatever yardstick is adopted, an award of $2.4 million was out of all proportion to the injury suffered by Professor Cheung.' The judge compared the sum to the $350,000 awarded to a man who sued for libel after an article claimed he was a triad leader and involved in crime.

He said there was no suggestion the professor had been dishonest or guilty of infamous behaviour. Accusations he 'skipped classes' were, by comparison, very trivial.