The Texas Supreme Court just made it easier for citizens to fend off meritless lawsuits attacking them for what they said or wrote. The ruling on Feb. 24 opened the door for fast dismissals of defamation and disparagement lawsuits far beyond the context of political speech covered under Texas Citizens Participation Act, says Houston lawyer Adam Milasincic of Ahmad, Zavitsanos, Anaipakos, Alavi & Mensing P.C. or AZA. That law was designed to protect Texans from lawsuits filed primarily to keep them from speaking out on matters of “public concern. The Supreme Court case involved notes by an ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. supervisor who detailed how an employee missed a critical safety check of a fuel storage tank. The employee was fired. He sued for defamation, citing the notes made about his work. In ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. v. Coleman, the Supreme Court ruled for ExxonMobil which had argued the matter involved a “public concern” because of health, safety and environmental risks, Mr. Milasincic said.
In the wake of the ExxonMobil decision, almost every defamation claim in Texas is subject to this procedure that can stop a case in its tracks very early. The real strength of the law comes from provisions allowing defendants to win attorneys’ fees and damages designed to deter future baseless lawsuits. Texas has one of the broadest statutes against so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). It was originally designed mainly to protect political speech and activists on either side of an issue. Now it will protect folks who aren’t necessarily all that political but who speak about any old thing that someone else might arguably care about.
Mr. Milasincic has won two highly publicized anti-SLAPP rulings, one just last week against Landry’s Inc. which sued an animal welfare group over its statements about the treatment of four white tigers caged at the Landry’s-owned aquarium in Houston. That lawsuit was tossed out by a Harris County judge, and Landry’s was ordered to pay $624,000 for filing the frivolous lawsuit.
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