TORONTO - Ontario plans to crack down on frivolous strategic lawsuits aimed at intimidating and muzzling critics on matters of public debate.
New anti-SLAPP — or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation — legislation was introduced Tuesday by the governing Liberals, who say it's time Canada's most populous province join Quebec in rooting out such nuisance lawsuits.
They have a "chilling effect" on public debate, said Attorney General John Gerretsen.
"A citizen's confidence in their justice system and their willingness and ability to participate in a democratic society are inextricably linked," he said.
Most SLAPP suits are defamation claims that have little or no merit and are dropped before proceeding to trial, the Liberals say. They can also silence groups that don't have the money to defend themselves in court.
Laws to protect citizens against strategic lawsuits are common in the United States, said Gerretsen. British Columbia's legislation was repealed.
Ontario's environmental commissioner has long complained that such intimidating legal tactics are being used by big developers to weaken groups fighting to protect natural areas.
He cited one case in which a group of residents who opposed the proposed Big Bay Point Resort on the shores of Lake Simcoe faced a $3.2-million claim for costs by the developer.
The claim was denied by the Ontario Municipal Board, but the cost of defending themselves ended up totalling more than $1 million, according to a lawyer involved in the case.
The Liberals finally put together a panel to make recommendations for anti-SLAPP legislation, which delivered its report in 2010.
Under the proposed law, courts could fast-track the review process for lawsuits that are alleged to be strategic.
One of the parties can file a motion to dismiss the case, which would have to be heard by the court within 60 days, Gerretsen said. The legislation also includes a legal test that a judge could use to quickly decide whether or not the case should be dismissed.
"In applying the test, the courts would seek to balance the interest at stake with an eye not only on the technical merits of the plaintiff's case, but on the value of free expression on matters of public interest," Gerretsen said in the legislature.
The case would be allowed to continue where the plaintiff is likely to suffer serious harm, he said.
If little or no harm is likely, then the technical merits of the case would yield to the value of public democratic debate and the suit would be dismissed, he added.
The legislation contains similar provisions for proceedings in administrative tribunals like the Ontario Municipal Board, Gerretsen said.
Submissions for costs would also have to be made in writing, unless a tribunal determines that it's "likely to cause the party significant prejudice," the five-page bill states.
The proposed law would also amend Ontario's libel and slander law to better protect free expression on matters of public interest, he said.
The legislation is slightly different than Quebec's, where judges don't need a motion to decide if the case in front of them is abusive, said John Gregory, general counsel to the Ministry of the Attorney General who wrote much of the legislation.
"The court doesn't get to decide on its own," he said.
Strategic lawsuits are a national issue, said Roy McMurtry, a retired judge and Ontario attorney general under former Tory premier Bill Davis.
"I think it's an issue in every province," he said.
"To what extent it's an issue in other provinces, I don't know. But it's an important issue. It's a complicated issue."
The minority Liberals would need the support of at least one of the opposition parties to pass the legislation. It's unclear when it may come to a final vote, since the legislature is expected next week to break for the summer.
The New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives wouldn't say whether they'd support the bill. Both said they welcome legislation to stop SLAPP suits, but noted that the government has dragged its feet on the issue.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who introduced an anti-SLAPP private member's bill in 2008, said her party has been pushing for it for five years.
"Really? Five years to do something that everybody agrees needs to be done?" she said.
Gerretsen acknowledged that SLAPP suits have been an issue in Ontario for some time, going as far back as eight years ago when he was minister of municipal affairs and housing.
"It's taken a lot of work," he said.
"We've reached a stage now where we think legislation is required in that regard."
Women Sue For Being Called 'Hot', Pictured With 'Douchebags'
Last October, Yvette Gorzelany, Joanna Obiedzinski, and Paulina Pakos attempted to sue over their appearance in the book "Hot Chicks with Douchebags." The ladies filed a defamation suit only to have it thrown out by a New Jersey judge in February who ruled it as a work of satire (duh). The judge proved the point further by asking whether a reasonable person could "believe that Jean-Paul Sartre stated 'man is condemned to be douchey because once thrown into the world he is responsible for every douchey thing that he does.'" Yeah, we're with the judge on that one. (<a href="http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2009/0210091douche1.html">source</a>)
Beer Commercial Promises Women, Doesn't Deliver
It would take a lot of beer to believe this guy's story. In 1991 Richard Overton actually tried to sue Anheuser-Busch for $10,000 because upon drinking copious amounts of Bud Light, beautiful women didn't come to life in a tropical setting, as shown in the commercials. Guess what Richard? Frogs and lizards can't <em>really</em> talk, either. (<a href="http://listverse.com">source</a>)
Sick Of Being A Celebrity Doppelganger? Sue!
Oregon man Allen Heckard had a unique problem: people constantly told him he looked like basketball star Michael Jordan. Except Heckard saw it a bit differently, Michael Jordan looked like <em>him</em>. Naturally, he decided to sue Jordan and Nike for $832 million for his "emotional pain and suffering." But we thought everyone wanted to "be like Mike"?! (<a href="http://www.nydailynews.com">source</a>)
Lindsay Lohan Sues For Depiction Of "Milkaholic" Baby
This year, Lindsay Lohan sought $100 million from E-Trade for use of the name "Lindsay" in reference to a female baby in their Super Bowl ad. Her people claimed the public knows her by the singular name, like Oprah or Madonna, and that referring to the baby as a "milk-aholic" directly references her life. We think she should be FINED $100 million just for being so vain. (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/09/lindsay-lohan-suing-etrad_n_491298.html">source</a>)
Broke? In Prison? Sue Yourself!
In 1995, Robert Lee Brock attempted to sue himself for $5 million claiming he violated his own civil rights by getting intoxicated and committing crimes. He was serving a 23 year prison sentence at the time and thought the state would have to pay because he was incarcerated. Not hard to believe, the case was thrown out. (<a href="http://www.the-injury-lawyer-directory.com/ridiculous_lawsuits.html">source</a>)
Haunted House Too Scary? Here's $15,000!
Usually haunted houses get points for being scary, but in the 2000 case of Cleanthi Peters, scariness got Universal Studios a $15,000 lawsuit. Peters claimed to have suffered "extreme fear, mental anguish, and emotional distress" after visiting the Halloween Horror Nights haunted house. Maybe she could use some of that money to learn what "haunted house" means. (<a href="http://www.the-injury-lawyer-directory.com/ridiculous_lawsuits.html">source</a>)
$100,000 For A Leg Cramp?
We've all wanted to sue an airline for awful food, uncomfortable seats, or longer-than-life wait times, but this couple actually did it. Jerome and Judith O'Callaghan sued American Airlines for $100,000 in 2004 because the leg room was smaller than they expected. (<a href="http://www.oddee.com/item_96614.aspx">source</a>)
Kidney "Donation" Ends In $1.5 M Lawsuit
When a Long Island doctor (yes, DOCTOR) was served with divorce papers by his cheating wife, he naturally decided to sue her for the return of a gift he gave her 8 years prior: his kidney. Yes, a medical professional put a price of $1.5 million on the body part, to be paid by his ex. At least he didn't want it back! (<a href="http://www.oddee.com/item_96614.aspx">source</a>)
Victoria's REAL Secret: Defective Merchandise?
52-year-old L.A. traffic cop Macrida Patterson sued Victoria's Secret after a thong she purchased there broke. The underwear had a rhinestone heart on the side that broke, flew into Macrida's eye and hurt her. We're not sure if Victoria's Secret made a defective thong, or whether Macrida just needs to buy bigger underwear. (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/06/19/macrida-patterson-talks-a_n_108068.html">source</a>)
Women Using Urinals Causes "Emotional Distress"
In 1995, Robert Glaser entered at unisex bathroom at a Billy Joel/Elton John concert and found not one, but multiple women using urinals in lieu of the toilets. Glaser sued the venue for $5.4 million for his "emotional distress" and lost. At least he got a good story out of it. (<a href="http://www.nydailynews.com">source</a>)
This Lawsuit Is What's "Unreasonable"
(<a href="http://wordsaboutthings.files.wordpress.com">image</a>) Zeynep Inanli is suing Starbucks for serving her tea that was "unreasonably hot." She claims the tea gave her second-degree burns and "great physical pain and mental anguish." Yeah, we're sure that's worth millions of dollars, right? (<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/04/starbucks-tea-lawsuit-zey_n_563069.html">source</a>)
Man Sues For Damages To Car After RUNNING OVER Boy
When Tomas Delgado was driving over the speed limit and hit and killed child on a bike, a loophole got him out of any trouble (the boy was riding at night without safety gear or reflectors). You'd think getting away with murder would be enough, but Delgado decided to sue the family of the boy for damages to his Audi. It's a good thing he later dropped the lawsuit, or we would have lost ALL faith in humanity. (<a href="http://www.paralegaltraining.net/blog/15-crazy-lawsuits">source</a>)
Not Dressed For The Weather? There's A Lawsuit For That
In 1996 an Israeli woman sued a TV station for predicting fair weather, prompting her to dress lightly and be rained upon later that day. She asked for $1000 for her resulting sickness which caused her to miss work. We don't know what's more strange: the fact that she actually sued over an act of nature, or the fact that she won. (<a href="http://listverse.com/2009/01/28/top-10-bizarre-or-frivolous-lawsuits/">source</a>).
Man Accuses Magicians Of Using His Powers
Christopher Roller is just a regular Minnesota resident. Well, except that he thinks he's a god. Roller got upset after seeing David Copperfield and David Blaine do their magic tricks, and sued both magicians for use of his "godly powers." So not only does this man think he's holy, but that his holy duty is to perform card tricks and faux levitation? Awesome. (<a href="http://www.paralegaltraining.net/blog/15-crazy-lawsuits">source</a>)
Red Hot Lawsuit Over 'Californication'
In 2007, The Red Hot Chili Peppers filed a lawsuit against Showtime over use of the name "Californication" for their series starring David Duchovny. Sure, it was the name of the band's 1999 album and hit song, but unless the show is about rocking out in underwear or doing drugs under a bridge, we don't see the problem. (<a href="http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1574710/20071120/red_hot_chili_peppers.jhtml">source</a>)
A $930 Plate Of Cookies
In the summer of 2005, two teen girls in Colorado decided to bake some cookies and share them with their neighbors. Sounds innocent enough, but one neighbor, Wanita Renea Young, was so shocked at the appearance of two 15-year-old girls on her doorstep at 10:30 p.m. that she had an anxiety attack and sued for medical damages. She won $930 for her trip to the emergency room but was denied money for "pain and suffering." You know what really helps with pain and suffering? Cookies! (<a href="http://www.paralegaltraining.net/blog/15-crazy-lawsuits">source</a>)