Rich Lister denied top court case against Andrew Little

The Supreme Court has denied NBR Rich Lister Lani Hagaman an appeal of a defamation suit against Justice Minister Andrew Little.

In a ruling released today, Chief Justice Sian Elias, Justice Mark O’Regan and Justice Ellen France declined the application of Ms Hagaman. Ms Hagaman made the application on behalf of her husband who died last May.

Hotelier Earl Hagaman had started legal proceedings back in 2016 after Mr Little made statements that drew a connection between Mr Hagaman’s donations to the National Party and the fact 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 Ms Hagaman.

At the Court of Appeal stage, 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.

The Appeal Court had dismissed the appeal on this point and also noted the well-established rule that there could be no defamation of the dead. This point was raised again at the Supreme Court stage by Ms Hagaman’s lawyers but they were again unsuccessful.

The top court also considered the way the Court of Appeal dealt with questions to the jury at the trial stage. It found in favour of the former Labour leader on this point.

A spokesperson for Ms Hagaman said her client was not immediately available to comment because she was busy helping her staff at Scenic Circle’s hotel in Tonga, which had been affected by tropical cyclone Gita.  

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.

Mr Little is currently overseas but his office released a statement which said: "He is pleased with the decision released today. Mr Little will have no further comment at this time." 

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