A High Court judge told the lawyer for a former co-op chief that he did not want to “waste endless time” in examining a document the witness knew nothing about, during a trial for defamation.
Jerry Henchy (48), a businessman and pedigree beef cattle breeder from Kilmallock, Co Limerick, is suing his former employer Dairygold Co-operative Society for up to €8m in damages arising from his dismissal for “spurious reasons” to do with alleged financial irregularities with his farm account. He is also suing the co-operative for defamation for articles which appeared in national and international reports. Dairygold contests all counts.
The judge’s intervention came as counsel for Henchy, barrister Patrick Hanratty SC, took the witness through the details of an internal Dairygold document outlining its credit policies. The document outlines a series of letters to be sent to overdue accounts, ending with a solicitor’s letter.
Judge Daniel Herbert intervened several times during evidence concerning the credit policy document, expressing concern that the court would “waste endless time” going through a document, which Henchy said he knew nothing about.
“Go straight to what you say are the important issues in the document,” the judge told Hanratty. “I’m not going to allow you to go through the document with him giving a running commentary.”
Henchy said that nobody in Dairygold had told him there was a credit limit on trading purchases for his farm, or what the figure for the limit was.
He said that when he was approached about the outstanding balances on his account in January 2009, which stood at €149,000, he offered to pay €40,000 to €50,000 within a few days from his personal account, and said he would be able to clear the balance within a few weeks, as he was expecting a tax rebate cheque from the Revenue Commissioners.
The judge said the board’s concern as recorded at a meeting on 19 January 2009 were that it would “cause scandal” if it was felt that Henchy as a senior manager received more favourable credit terms than ordinary co-op members, and it would damage the capacity of the co-operative to collect its debts in the future.
The judge said it didn’t “make any sense of logic at all” for the board not to record in minutes an additional reason for deciding it had no confidence in Henchy. “Why should they hide a third reason under a bushel?” he asked.
Henchy claimed that although the only formal decision recorded at a meeting on 19 January 2009 was to appoint a sub-committee to resolve his outstanding account, the decision to fire him was effectively taken on that date and not at a later board meeting on 26 January 2009.
Henchy said a report to the first board meeting contained “inaccuracies, falsehoods and it implies things” about his account with the co-operative.”It implies that I was written to and that I ignored those letters,” he said.
“If I was a board member and I was given that information I would think Jerry Henchy was not fit to be a chief executive.”
“It was very damning to me.”
The report had hurt his wife, who had been a “tremendous support”, and his children in school, who read about it on the internet, he said. And he said his father, who had chaired a small co-operative society, was “horrified when he read this”.
Following his dismissal by the board a week later, at a board meeting on 26 January 2009, information appeared in national and international media, which could only have come from members of the Dairygold board, Henchy said.
The judge asked Henchy to review the report, which appeared in the media and to clarify which items in it were known only to the board, and were not contained in Dairygold press releases or other publicly available reports.
Dairygold contest all allegations. The case resumes in the High Court.
By Gerard Cunningham