A bill designed to protect citizen activists from the cost and intimidation of frivolous lawsuits is lying wounded in Colorado's State Senate.
House Bill 1150, the so-called anti-SLAPP suit bill, was defeated on final reading in the state House last month after receiving an inadequate 32-32 tie vote. Still, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Sinclair, R-El Paso County, vows to bring it back for another hearing next year.
Nationwide, citizens who fight corporations, developers or local governments are being charged with slander or libel and dragged into courtrooms. These suits are dubbed SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
Citizens almost always win, but the lengthy, expensive trials can leave the groups unable and unwilling to continue fighting. "Citizens spend time, money and peace of mind to win," says Lori Potter, lawyer and partner in the Denver law firm of Kelly/Haglund/Garnsey & Kahn, LLC.
HB 1150 would require Colorado courts to deal quickly with SLAPP suits. Early in the proceedings, the court would need to determine clear and convincing evidence for the lawsuit to proceed any further. Vindicated defendants would recover court costs, attorney's fees, and damages for inconvenience and psychological distress. Similar bills have been passed in 20 states nationwide.
Opponents say that HB 1150 will allow citizens to get away with slanderous and untrue attacks on honest businesses. But Rock Pring, a law professor at the University of Denver, argues that the truth can be sorted out at local government meetings instead of in the courts.
Says Pring, "The whole point of this bill is to encourage courts to dismiss before a chill sets in. These lawsuits distract and discourage people from acting as good citizens."
Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jennifer Chergo