Does Absolute Privilege Apply To Testimony Presented To The Kansas Legislature?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Clean Water Truck Co. v. M. Bruenger & Co., Inc, 214 Kan. 139, 519 P.2d 682 (1974).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does absolute privilege apply to testimony presented to the Kansas Legislature?
This case arises from proceedings before the Kansas Legislator and the Kansas Interstate Commerce Commission. Id. at 139. The court held that judgment on the pleadings was appropriate because the statements made before these bodies were absolutely privileged, meaning they could not be the basis of a libel or slander claim, even if proven false. Id. at 140. Without such an ability to create liability, the Plaintiff’s pleading was properly disposed of by a judgment on the pleading, itself. Id.
Both parties were trucking companies which transported meat throughout Kansas and neighboring states. Id. These businesses were competitors and there was bad blood between them. Id. Essentially, Plaintiff’s company had been denied a permit to operate in a certain area because that area was considered too crowded with trucking companies already. Id. at 141. Plaintiff then asked for the Kansas Interstate Commerce Commission and the Kansas Legislator to meet and hear testimony regarding whether the rules, regulations, and laws concerning issuing permits should be changed. Id. At that hearing, Defendant appeared and presented both a signed affidavit from the traffic coordinator in that area and live testimony. Id. This evidence supported leaving the law concerning permits as it was, supported the underlying facts that the area was too congested with meat transporting companies already, and present evidence that the Plaintiff company had transported meat without a permit in that area. Id. Plaintiff filed suit for libel and slander based upon the affidavit and live testimony. Id. The basis of the claim was that each contained false information that was presented with the intention of keeping Plaintiff from receiving a permit to make deliveries in that area. Id.
There is a longstanding history of immunity for statements made in judiciary proceedings, administrative bodies, and legislative sessions. Id. at 142. This immunity from claims of libel and slander arise from the desire to keep these bodies open and promote the free exchange of ideas. Id. The court acknowledged that this meant some victims of libelous or slanderous comments would go uncompensated, but that was simply the price that society has deemed appropriate in exchange for the free flow of ideas. Id.
Plaintiff offered an argument that the statements made by Defendant extended beyond the privilege, because they attacked Plaintiff individually, rather than staying focused on the issue before the Legislature. Id. at 143. However, the court disagreed. Id. The court noted that the statements were, in fact, relevant to issues being discussed at the hearing. Id. In fact, the Plaintiff’s own claim for damages acknowledged as much: the statements kept the law from changing and kept Plaintiff from receiving a permit. Id. at 144. Thus, the statements were made for the purpose of aiding the Legislature and Commission in determining if a law should be changed, making those statements absolutely privileged. Id.