No defamation of the dead: Andrew Little wins Hagaman suit  

The Court of Appeal has thrown out an appeal by Earl Hagaman’s estate against Labour MP Andrew Little on the basis that dead people can't be defamed.

The late hotelier, Earl Hagaman, had started proceedings back in 2016 after Mr Little made statements that drew a connection between Mr Hagaman’s donations to the National Party and that his hotel chain had received Niue government funding, which ultimately came from New Zealand government aid.

In the High Court at Wellington a 12-person jury found Mr Little defamed Mr Hagaman on one occasion and not on others but was hung on whether he was protected by privilege. The jury had found in favour of Mr Little in relation to the claims about Mr Hagaman’s wife, Lani.

As it could not agree, the jury did not consider whether damages should be paid but there could be a new trial for the undecided counts or the judge may make a ruling.

An appeal was filed in relation to some of the claims in April this year but Mr Hagaman died in May. His personal representatives were substituted as appellants.

The Court of Appeal, in a decision delivered by president Justice Stephen Kos, said it had to decide whether the jury’s answer about a particular part of the suit – the second cause of action – amounted to a verdict. This was because whether any defamation appeal right existed depended on whether there was a verdict.

“It follows that no verdict was given on the second cause of action. It, therefore, abates with the death of Mr Hagaman. No appeal may now be advanced upon it. As the whole of the appeal is confined to that cause of action, it also follows that the appeal itself must be dismissed.”

In a statement the new minister for justice said: “Mr Little is pleased the matter has been finalised. There will be no further comment.”

A representative for Ms Hagaman has been contacted for comment.

Scenic Circle founder Mr Hagaman had started in partnership with friend Ralph Brown in 1980 when they bought their first hotel on the South Island’s West Coast – the 48-room Graham Motor Inn, now the 130-room Scenic Hotel Franz Josef.

Today Scenic Circle owns and manages 18 good-quality hotels, stretching from Paihia in the far north, to Gore and Queenstown, and the South Pacific in Tonga and Niue.

Read the full decision here.

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