Libel Suit Over Deepwater Horizon Reporting Tossed

BOSTON (CN) – Two bloggers received a judicial valentine Tuesday as the highest court in Massachusetts blocked defamation claims related to their reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

The lawsuit against Cherri Foytlin and Karen Savage stems from an article the duo penned in October 2013 for the Huffington Post’s Green Blog.

BP was fighting in federal court at the time to limit liability for the oil spill, and Foytlin and Savage’s article heaped criticism on one of the consultants that the oil giant tapped to contest its share of damages.

Cardno ChemRisk claimed that Foytlin and Savage’s report of deceptive tactics was defamatory, but the bloggers pushed for dismissal under Massachusetts anti-SLAPP, short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

“The object of a SLAPP suit is not necessarily to prevail, but rather, through the difficulty and expense of litigation, to discourage and intimidate individuals from exercising their constitutional right of petition,” Tuesday’s ruling states.

Though the trial judge denied their motion, the Supreme Judicial Court reversed Tuesday saying that the writers were engaged in petitioning, a protected activity.

Because they expressed their own opinions, speaking for themselves and at their own behest, Foytlin and Savage have established that they exercised their own right to petition when they wrote the article at issue,” Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the seven-judge court.

Lenk said this finding shifts the burden to ChemRisk, which would have to “show by a preponderance of the evidence that the allegations in the blog posting were devoid of any reasonable factual support or arguable basis in law.”

“It has not done so, having provided minimal evidence that the defendants lacked a reasonable basis in fact for the challenged statements,” the 20-page opinion states.

Attorneys for the bloggers applauded the reversal.

“The ruling clarifies that one need not have a direct self-interest at stake in the petitioning in order to be protected by the statute,” said Jeffrey Pyle, a partner at Prince Lobel Tye, in a statement.

“The ruling is also important, because it makes clear that journalists who write opinionated articles are covered by the anti-SLAPP protections,” added Pyle, who is a cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Among other things, Foytlin and Savage’s article told how Chemrisk’s attempts to discredit the scientific research of Chinese scientist Dr. Jian Dong Zhang became the basis for the movie “Erin Brokovich.”

BP hired Chemrisk to assess the danger to cleanup workers who had been exposed to benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The April 20, 2010, explosion of BP’s oil rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people and set off the worst oil spill in U.S. history, dumping 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday’s ruling notes that Foytlin and Savage are both environmental activists and that Foytlin is a lifelong resident of the Gulf region.