By Susan Falvella-Garraty and Ray O’Hanlon
WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was shaping up to be a courtroom showdown in which Northern Ireland society itself would have been on trial. But the $100 million libel lawsuit brought against author Sean McPhilemy in Washington, D.C., ended abruptly last Friday with an out-of-court settlement.
The lawsuit, brought by Northern Ireland car dealers David and Albert Prentice, was prompted by McPhilemy’s controversial book, "The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland."
The Prentices had been named in the book as members of the secret group, which, McPhilemy alleged, was responsible for the assassination of Catholics in Northern Ireland between 1989 and 1991.
The settlement was agreed after only one day of argument in D.C. Superior Court and before the jury was selected.
The Prentices had sued McPhilemy, Colorado-based publishers Roberts Rinehart, and McPhilemy’s TV production company, Box Productions.
The $1 million payout is covered by the publishers insurance company. The eventual payment might rise if the Prentices succeed in a pending arbitration claim in which they are contending that a second insurance policy covers the paperback edition of McPhilemy’s book.
While the settlement was a formal victory for the Prentices, both sides came away from the action claiming vindication to varying degrees.
"With the Prentices’ legal bills approaching $2 million, it’s nice to know they won’t get rich by suing journalists for doing their job," said McPhilemy’s attorney, Russell Smith, following the settlement deal.
Earlier, Smith had signed off on an agreed statement presented to Judge Geoffrey Alprin.
It stated: "Sean McPhilemy and Roberts Rinehart Publishers accept that David and Albert Prentice are not and have never been members of a committee as described in the hardback and paperback editions of the work entitled ‘The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland,’ and in the press releases associated with it, and that David and Albert Prentice have not been involved in any activities of the type described in ‘The Committee.’ Sean McPhilemy and Roberts Rinehart sincerely regret the embarrassment and offense caused to Albert and David Prentice by the books."
Despite this statement, Smith stressed said McPhilemy still stood by his account of the "Committee" existence as outlined in his book. He said that while McPhilemy was expressing regret, he was not offering an apology to the Prentices.
William Taylor, one of the Washington, D.C.-based attorneys representing the Prentices, indicated that the statement of regret was being interpreted by his clients as an apology.
Taylor said the two men were delighted with the agreement.
"It’s been pretty hot here in Washington this week," Taylor said. He said the Prentices had been too preoccupied with the legal efforts to reach a settlement to be able to appreciate the unusual summer-like weather before their return to Northern Ireland.
"They’ll be able to enjoy it a little bit more now," he said.
The Prentices, in a brief statement, said: "We are pleased with the settlement. We have accomplished what we came to America to do. We have cleared our names of the horrible accusations made about us in this book, and we look forward to returning to our families."
The sudden turn in the case was prompted by several factors but most especially by the fact that the main source for McPhilemy’s allegations in the book, and preceding TV documentary, unionist activist Jim Sands, was listed to appear as a witness for the Prentices in the trial.
With Sands expected to debunk the story he originally recounted to McPhilemy, Smith was placed in the position of having to attack the credibility of his client’s primary source.
Additionally, an earlier pre-trial ruling by Judge Alprin would have resulted in negligence — as opposed to malice — being the legal standard in the case.
A few weeks ago, McPhilemy won an action taken by him against the Sunday Times newspaper in the London High Court. In that case, malice was the legal standard. The Times had accused McPhilemy of perpetrating a hoax. A jury rejected this accusation and McPhilemy was awarded in excess of $200,000.
"With negligence as the standard we would have had to show that it is the norm to publish this kind of book. The author and publishers would be punished for their courage and for not going along with the herd," Smith said.
He added that both he and his client were also conscious of the potential consequence for the Northern Ireland peace process if the trial had gone ahead. Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, named by McPhilemy as an "associate" of the alleged Committee, was listed to appear as a witness for the Prentices.
"There’s a lot of pressure on Trimble right now and we didn’t want to bash him in court in such circumstances," Smith told the Echo.
Another factor that loomed large in the end was limited insurance coverage for Roberts Rinehart. The settlement has all but used up that coverage, although the Prentices are claiming that it exceeds $1 million. Roberts Rinehart has been the main casualty in the two-year battle between McPhilemy and the Prentices and recently shuttered its publishing operations.