Neurologist wins $385,000 defamation damages over boxing match claims

By Michael Woodhead

18 Jul 2019

A Sydney neurologist has been awarded $385,000 damages for defamation in a case against a media outlet that wrongly implied he had acted incompetently in his role as a ringside doctor at a boxing match.

Dr John O’Neill, a consultant neurologist at St Vincent’s Hospital, sued Fairfax over articles that falsely imputed he had ‘recklessly’ allowed boxer Danny Green to continue his match against Anthony Mundine in 2017.

Danny Green was knocked down after being struck on the head by a foul blow in the opening moments of the match that took place in Adelaide.

Dr O’Neill  examined Green for less than a minute and excluded injury or concussion and the fight continued.

But in the Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter FitzSimons wrote that the fight should have been stopped because the boxer had suffered concussion and bleeding on the brain.

Dr O’Neill claimed the articles were defamatory because they would lead people to believe that he had “negligently endangered boxer’s life by allowing him to continue fighting when he obviously had brain damage.”

Much of the case heard at the Supreme Court of NSW focused on the definition of concussion and how a diagnosis was made.

Judge Lucy McCallum accepted the testimony of two neurosurgeons, Dr Neil Cochrane and Dr Marc Coughlan, who supported Dr O’Neill’s conclusion after a face to face assessment that Danny Green had been transiently disoriented rather than concussed by the foul blow to the head.

“I am satisfied on the strength of Dr O’Neill ’s evidence and that of his expert witnesses that he carried out reasonable steps in making that assessment,” she said.

She noted that Danny Green went on to win the boxing match in 10 rounds and gave an articulate speech in the ring afterwards.

The judge accepted that the articles had severely damaged Dr O’Neill’s professional reputation, who told the court the articles had led to gossip among medical colleagues at the private hospital where he worked.

The article had also been extremely hurtful to him personally and had affected Dr O’Neill’s confidence in practice, the court heard.

“I feel terrible. This never leaves me. This is something that’s like a black cloud or a black mark on my whole being,” said Dr O’Neill in evidence.

“These things have had a major effect on me personally, on my self-confidence, on the very things that I do, which is work with people in brain-related areas.

“I am constantly suspicious, l wonder if this person has read these articles, or even though, you know, they may not say it to you, when you’re assessing a child with parents you wonder whether they’ve read some of this …”

The judge ruled that it was a very serious defamation.

“The damage clearly spread among Dr O’Neill’s colleagues and friends potentially damaging his reputation irreparably in some quarters,” concluded Judge McCallum.

She awarded Dr O’Neill $350,000 in general damages and added 10% for aggravated damages.

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