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Little jury deliberations continue

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 6/04/2017 Karen Sweeney
Andrew Little © Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images Andrew Little

Everybody is equal in the eyes of the law, whether you're the millionaire owners of a hotel group or the man who could be New Zealand's next prime minister.

Richard Fowler, QC, made that clear during the trial this week between Scenic Hotels owners Earl and Lani Hagaman and Labour leader Andrew Little.

The couple are seeking up to $2.3 million from Mr Little over claims he made linking a $100,000 donation made by Mr Hagaman to the National Party and the awarding of a government-led contract to his company a month later.

After four and a half days of evidence and summaries, the jury retired on Friday morning to consider their decision.

They have come back to the court with two questions, but deliberations will continue on Monday.

Both the Hagamans and Mr Little are no doubt anxiously awaiting their return.

For the Hagamans the question are matters of whether Mr Little did imply they were involved in corrupt dealings, whether the word used lowered their reputation and whether Mr Little made the statements with ill will.

The jury will consider each of those points, moving from one to the next only if they are satisfied the answer is yes.

The Hagamans say Mr Little did defame them and want vindication.

Mrs Hagaman wants her husband's reputation cleared and restored before his death.

The 91-year-old is, as Mr Fowler described it, in the "departure lounge" of life, his family having been told he has just weeks to live.

"My husband is dying in Christchurch and I'm fighting for his reputation for something that should never have happened," Mrs Hagaman said in her evidence on Tuesday.

She maintained throughout that she never wanted anything more than an apology and legal fees covered, and before trial those were already upward of $250,000.

Now they're seeking damages for harm done to their reputation, as prominent business people and philanthropists.

"The damage to our reputation is worth far more than that [$2.3 million sought], I can assure you," Mrs Hagaman said.

Mr Little's lawyer John Tizard is hopeful they will never even reach a discussion around damages.

The defence argument is that Mr Little's comments were never directed at the Hagamans, but at the government.

He also suggested the Hagamans should have sued the media who, in some cases, did a "cut and paste job" selecting certain comments from long interviews to be used in news stories.

For Mr Little personally, his anxiety will be around money if the jury decides he did in fact defame the Hagamans.

While both parties are equal before the law, they are not equal in finances.

Rich listers, the Hagamans are reportedly worth $180 million while Mr Little revealed he had to mortgage his family home in order to make a $100,000 settlement offer.

An award of $2.3 million would likely lead him to bankruptcy.

Mr Fowler said that must not be a consideration the jury lingers on for long but Mr Tizard said the jury should be fair.

During his closing statement he told the jury to consider their own home - how long it took to save the deposit, the sacrifices they made and the years it took or is still taking to pay off a mortgage.

"Put your feet on the ground and try to be fair to both parties," he said.

Where the jury would even start to come up with a figure for damages is difficult to know.

Defamation cases are rare in New Zealand and Justice Karen Clark told jurors that each is decided on the individual facts and no two can be compared.

Essentially it's a case of how long is a piece of string, if in fact there even is a piece of string.

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