(CN) – An attorney should not face defamation claims over statements he made to the press after filing a lawsuit, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled.
In December 2007, a community organizer in Mesquite, N.M, held a public meeting over concerns about toxic chemicals emanating from nearby Helena Chemical, a crop-protection company.
The organizer, Arturo Uribe, invited the named partners of Thomas & Wan, who had previously filed a toxic tort lawsuit against Helena in Texas for similar environmental and health hazards.
During the meeting, attorney Linda Thomas called Helena’s alleged actions “pretty egregious,” and said “children are out here and they’re playing in the yard, they’re putting their hands in their mouth (sic) and they’re getting a dose that way.”
Thomas told the press that “the underground water has been contaminated.”
Ten months later, Thomas & Wan filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Uribes and other Mesquite residents. In a press conference a day after filing suit, Pamela Uribe said that her children suffered from “upper respiratory problems, pneumonia, bad allergies and bloody noses.”
Helena then sued Thomas, the Uribes and the firm for defamation, but a Las Cruces judge sided with the defendants at summary judgment, finding that they had absolute privilege over statements related to pending or just-filed litigation.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed, however, after finding that the press covering the meeting did not have an interest in the judicial matter.
That decision unraveled before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
“These statements are absolutely privileged because the use of the press to educate the public about a potential good-faith class action or mass-tort lawsuit and/or to identify additional litigants is reasonably related to the judicial proceeding,” Justice Edward Chavez wrote for a five-member panel.
“We also hold that statements made by litigants or their attorneys to the press after the lawsuit has been filed are absolutely privileged if the statements are a repetition or an explanation of the allegations in the pleading,” he added.