Pa. lawmaker’s bill would protect ‘SLAPPed’ citizens

Tuesday, December 19, 2000

For more than six years, state Rep. Camille “Bud” George
has fought to protect Pennsylvania citizens, particularly environmentalists in
the state, who find themselves at the receiving end of lawsuits seeking to end
their protests.

The plight of the elderly woman in George’s district, who
complained to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection about
mining, comes to mind, said Matthew Maciorkoski, a spokesman for the Democratic
lawmaker from Houtzdale, Pa.

The woman claimed that a nearby coal company’s work caused
flooding in her basement, Maciorkoski said. The coal company then sued the
woman for complaining.

But a recently passed bill, House Bill 393, allows state residents who
win these Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPPs, to seek
attorney’s fees and court costs from the corporations who filed the
suits. The bill is on Gov. Tom Ridge’s desk.

“While the bill is not as strong as it should be, it is an
important first step toward ensuring Pennsylvanians are not sued for exercising
their rights to free speech,” George said.

But business leaders fought hard against the bill, describing
anti-SLAPP measures as an anti-business concept that protects mostly frivolous
lawsuits. They say the bill, if passed, would keep businesses from protecting
themselves from citizens and environmental groups who sue companies simply to
stop them from doing business.

“It’s a step backward in the efforts to achieve
meaningful Lawsuit Abuse Reform,” a statement at the Pennsylvania
Chamber of Business and Industry’s Web site reads.
“Unfortunately, we’re probably going to see more attempts to push
SLAPP bills and amendments next year.”

George, who chairs the House Environmental Resources and Energy
Committee, promises more such bills even though he expects more battles. Over
the last two sessions, he has filed several bills and amendments containing
anti-SLAPP language only to see them die in the state Senate.

In January, the Senate stripped a portion of the bill that would have
allowed the courts to dismiss frivolous lawsuits. The Senate then added an
amendment to enable defendants in SLAPP suits to ask for a hearing to determine
civil immunity. If immunity is denied, defendants may appeal to Commonwealth
Court. Favorable rulings in any of those venues would halt court

“The provision is crucial to short-circuiting SLAPPs because
the intent of such suits is to tie up the victim in costly and time-consuming
litigation rather than actually winning the case,” said George, who
supported the revisions.

The revised bill is before the governor. But Ridge is still reviewing
it and hasn’t decided whether to sign it, said Tom Charles, a spokesman.
The measure will automatically become law if Ridge doesn’t act on it by
Dec. 30.

Sharon Roth, director of regulatory affairs for the business-industry
chamber, said business leaders opposed the bill because it went too far in
protecting individuals in SLAPP suits and not far enough in protecting
corporations. Roth said many companies would simply settle with defendants
rather than go through a costly court battle.

“The legislation makes it very, very easy for the individual to
win attorney’s fees,” she said. “But it’s very,
very difficult for the company. This bill should work both ways.”

But George said that in most SLAPP cases, the companies filing such
lawsuits aren’t interested in obtaining a favorable court decision. He
said they want to tie up the matter in costly litigation that citizens may not
be able to afford.

The bill, he said, would help citizen groups ward off such lawsuits so
that their “free-speech rights no longer are threatened by expensive and
time-consuming court action.”

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