From Nine Media
A ringside doctor who supervised a boxing match between Anthony Mundine and Danny Green has been awarded $385,000 in damages after a court found he was defamed by a column in the Sydney Morning Herald which argued the fight continued despite one boxer suffering "a bleeding brain".
Dr John O'Neill, a neurology specialist who has acted as a ringside doctor for more than three decades, sued Fairfax Media and journalist Peter FitzSimons in the NSW Supreme Court over The Fitz Files column published in print and online on February 10, 2017.
The story referred to a punch thrown by Mundine within the first minute of the first round of the February 2017 fight, which hit Green in the head and caused him to stumble backwards and drop briefly to the ground.
Green was examined by Dr O'Neill, who cleared him to keep fighting after finding he was not injured and not concussed. Green, who subsequently won, had an MRI scan several days later which found no significant difference from a scan carried out two years earlier.
Justice Lucy McCallum found on Thursday that the article – which included phrases such as "a bloke with a bleeding brain was allowed to continue, risking his life" – defamed Dr O'Neill and conveyed imputations including that he was a "reckless ringside doctor" who "incompetently allowed Danny Green to continue fighting".
She found the ordinary reasonable reader would readily infer that if Green was concussed, Dr O'Neill would have been "incompetent, negligent and reckless to allow the contest to continue".
"The defamation was significant and Dr O'Neill is entitled to a substantial award of damages," Justice McCallum said.
She awarded Dr O'Neill $350,000 in in general damages, plus $35,000 for aggravated damages because Dr O'Neill was not contacted for comment before publication and the newspaper did not issue an apology as requested.
The Herald had denied the imputations alleged by Dr O'Neill were conveyed, and relied on the defences of justification and honest opinion.
Dr O'Neill was not identified by name in the story, but Justice McCallum found his reputation was damaged in the circles where it matters most, "since those are the circles in which he would have been identified as the unnamed ringside doctor".
"The damage clearly spread among Dr O'Neill's colleagues and friends, potentially damaging his reputation irreparably in some quarters," Justice McCallum said.
"The imputations are very serious, striking at the heart of Dr O'Neill's professional reputation.
"The publication of such imputations would be extremely hurtful to anyone in Dr O'Neill's position."
In his evidence, Dr O'Neill said he felt "devastated" and "haunted" by the story, which he described as "like a black cloud or a black mark on my whole being".
Speaking outside court, Dr O'Neill said he was "delighted" by the court's decision, which vindicated his reputation.
"That was the whole principle behind this entire court case – it's one's good reputation," Dr O'Neill said. "Once that goes, you can't get it back. And today, I got mine back."
Dr Lou Lewis, who was also present at the fight, was previously sued for defamation by Dr O'Neill after he criticised the medical assessment of Green.
In a September 2017 apology, Dr Lewis said he did not assess Green and therefore could not determine if he was concussed. He said his remarks were unjustified and unsubstantiated, and he was sorry for defaming the other doctor.