Stud farm owner issues defamation proceedings against UL and two students

Anne Sheridan


Anne Sheridan

Stud farm owner issues defamation proceedings against UL and two students

AN IRISH stud farm owner in Japan has initiated High Court proceedings against the University of Limerick, after two equine students were pulled from its co-op placement in Japan arising from allegations made to the university against him.

Dr Harry Sweeney, of Paca Paca stud farm, is suing UL for damages for negligence, breach of contract, breach of fair procedures, breach of natural justice and defamation, as a result of actions taken by the defendant in choosing to withdraw two of its students from a placement programme in 2014.

Declaratory and injunctive relief is also sought against UL in relation to its actions in withdrawing the students from the placement.

Dr Sweeney is also seeking an injunction restraining UL from "repeating untrue and defamatory allegations".

In two other sets of proceedings, Dr Sweeney and Paca Paca are seeking damages for defamation and malicious falsehood against the two students concerned.

Ms Justice Miriam O'Regan heard this Thursday afternoon that Dr Sweeney had offered placements to UL students since 2009 as part of its equine science course.

Three students began their placement in Japan in January 2014, but for two students that placement came to an end in March 2014. No UL students were thereafter sent on placement in 2015.

On March 18, 2014, the parents of the students made a complaint to the university regarding Dr Sweeney and asked for their "safe return to Ireland via the Embassy in Tokyo".

Dr Sweeney had a day earlier informed staff in the university of his "difficulties with the students", which his defence claims had been ongoing for some time but only communicated to the university in March.

Allegations by the students against Dr Sweeney have been vehemently denied.

Miriam Reilly, SC, of behalf of Dr Sweeney, argued that there was an onus on UL to assess the credibility of the students' claims. She said matters "came to a head over St Patrick's weekend", following the Emerald Ball in Toyko.

As a result of the actions of one of the students, she was told to consider herself suspended, and Dr Sweeney's concerns were communicated to the equine science department in an email on March 18.

Ms Reilly maintained that her client's position is that the claims by the two UL students were "false, malicious allegations made in concert, and that this fabrication of a story was sold to Professor Paul McCutcheon to avoid other repercussions".

Prof McCutcheon, vice president academic & registrar in UL, liaised with the Embassy in Tokyo, and a taxi was sent to collect the students in Paca Paca. 

Senior counsel for Holmes O'Malley Sexton solcitors, on behalf of UL, said that while Prof McCutcheon believed that Paca Paca was a prestigious placement, UL had to act in the best interests of its students.

The relationship between Dr Sweeney and UL is "now fraught to put it mildly".

Ms Reilly said Dr Sweeney has now suffered "loss and damage, including to his reputation", as a result of "UL's failure to observe fair procedures and hear his views".

She added that UL had an "enormous deficit of information" when the decision was made to remove the students from Japan.

While noting that UL has an obligation to its students who are far from home, she said UL has had a contractual obligation to Dr Sweeney as a result of a long-standing relationship.

"No note has been produced by UL based on what it decided to do. UL then unilaterally decided there would be no further placements, as a result of the breakdown in this relationship".

Ms Justice O'Regan will hear the case again on Friday morning and decide how to proceed in respect of dealing with the various proceedings.