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Federal appeals court SLAPPs out defamation suit

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A defamation lawsuit brought by a Louisiana jet fuel supplier against a local newspaper was thrown out by a federal appellate…

A defamation lawsuit brought by a Louisiana jet fuel supplier against a local newspaper was thrown out by a federal appellate court this week.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) ordered a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit under the Louisiana anti-SLAPP statute, which allows defendants to seek early dismissal of lawsuits that are aimed at curbing free speech. (The acronym stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.) The opinion was written by Judge Edward Prado, with Judges Jerry Smith and Rhesa Barksdale also on the panel.

Mark Henry, owner and president of the Chennault Jet Center, filed a libel lawsuit against the Lake Charles American Press after the newspaper ran a series of articles reporting that Jet Center provided contaminated fuel to military jets.

Under Article 971 of the Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure, the anti-SLAPP statute, the defendant to a defamation claim can move to shift the burden in a case he believes is targeting his speech. Once the defendant shows the lawsuit is indeed meant to curb free speech rights, the burden shifts to the plaintiff, who must then prove the suit has merit before it can move forward.

In this case, the trial court ruled in favor of Henry, declining to dismiss the suit. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit held that under Article 971 the claim should have been tossed.

The Court held that Henry failed to prove all the elements of a defamation claim; in particular, Henry did not provide evidence showing that the American Press acted negligently in reporting on the matter.

“Louisiana courts have recognized that establishing a probability of success is a difficult burden and this difficult burden exists to prevent frivolous torts from chilling exercises of First Amendment rights,” Prado wrote.