Refusing Wagners defamation settlement cost Nine dearly
FIVE Channel 9 defendants could have got away with paying a quarter of the $2.4 million defamation damages they have to pay four Toowoomba brothers, if they had accepted a settlement offer.
And a journalist who was ordered to pay Denis, John, Neill and Joe Wagner $1.2 million for defaming them could have settled without paying a cent, by simply apologising.
The settlement offer by the Wagners, who wanted the Nine defendants to pay them $600,000 total, plus costs, and make a full apology on their terms, was made in February.
It was rejected months before a jury found the brothers had been defamed in Nine's 60 Minutes program and by journalist Nick Cater in 2015.
A Brisbane Supreme Court judge, deciding on the level of costs to be paid by the Nine defendants and journalist Nick Cater, said the Wagners' settlement offer was reasonable at the time.
Justice Peter Applegarth said it was imprudent or unreasonable for the defendants not to accept it.
Last month Justice Applegarth ordered the Nine defendants and Mr Cater to pay a total of $3,694,500 to the Wagners, including interest.
The five Nine defendants had to pay each Wagner brother $600,000 in defamation damages, plus $63,000 in interest.
Mr Cater was ordered to pay them $300,000 damages each, plus $31,500 in interest.
The jury found the 60 Minutes program defamed the Wagners in allegations linking their quarry wall's collapse to the catastrophic Grantham floods.
In a costs judgment today, Justice Applegarth said the defendants made an unreasonable settlement offer to pay the Wagners a total of $600,000 including costs in December last year.
They also offered to make a three-sentence apology on 60 Minutes and a slightly longer apology on its website.
But the Wagners rejected the offer, and Justice Applegarth said the statement proposed to be read on 60 Minutes was inadequate and did not constitute an effective apology.
He said the "weak terms'' of the 60 Minutes statement suggested they did not want to broadcast an actual apology that used the word "apology''.
He found the defendants unreasonably failed to make a settlement offer.
The Wagners then offered to settle their claims in February this year, seven months before a jury returned a verdict.
They asked for the Nine defendants to pay each brother $150,000, and make an apology they proposed, to be broadcast on 60 Minutes and published on the program's website.
They asked for Mr Cater to make a separate apology, but did not ask him to pay them any money.
"It probably was unreasonable of the defendants to not accept it,'' Justice Applegarth said of the settlement offer.
He ordered the defendants to pay the Wagners' proceedings' costs on a standard basis up to the time of the Wagners' settlement offer, and then pay costs on a higher indemnity basis after that.