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ABBOTT v. TACOMA BANK COMMERCE.

decided: December 11, 1899.

ABBOTT
v.
TACOMA BANK OF COMMERCE.



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON.

Author: Harlan

[ 175 U.S. Page 409]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

The plaintiff in error, Abbott, brought this action in the Superior Court of the State of Washington to recover damages sustained by the plaintiff on account of an alleged libel published against him by the National Bank of Commerce of Tacoma, Washington, and the other individual defendants named.

It appears that in 1895 the defendant bank at the instance of the other defendants as its directors and attorneys instituted a suit in the United States Circuit Court for the District of Washington against three of its former directors to recover certain alleged losses on account of loans made by them. The complaint in that suit alleged that Abbott was one of the persons

[ 175 U.S. Page 410]

     to whom the loans were made, and among other things charged substantially that he was insolvent when they were made.

In the present action Abbott alleged in his complaint that the statements in reference to him and his financial condition in the other suit were defamatory and untrue; that the defendants not only had no reason to believe them to be true, but knew them to be untrue, and that those statements were not pertinent, relevant or material to the bank's cause of action.

The defendants in their answer averred that the language referred to was contained in the complaint filed by the bank and not otherwise; that the court in which that complaint was filed had jurisdiction of the parties and of the subject-matter of the action; and that the language used was pertinent, relevant and material to the issues, and was in good faith believed by defendants to be true and was true.

In his reply the plaintiff, besides denying the averments of the answer, alleged that he was not a party to the action in which that complaint was filed, was not bound by any proceedings therein, that his rights cannot be determined in any manner thereby, and that "any attempt to deprive him of his rights or his property by any process therein or thereunder is contrary to and in violation of the constitution and laws of the State of Washington, and of section 1 of Article XIV of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States."

The trial court, on motion for judgment on the pleadings, dismissed the suit upon the ground that the facts stated did not constitute a cause of action and because the matters alleged to be libellous were privileged.

This judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Washington. Among other things that court said: "Whether the Federal court had jurisdiction of the cause in which the pleading was filed, and of the parties thereto, is purely a legal question to be determined from an inspection of the pleading itself. The Federal court overruled a demurrer to the bill which contained the objectionable matter, and we are constrained to hold as did that court that it had jurisdiction. See National Bank

[ 175 U.S. Page 411]

     of Commerce v. Wade et al., 84 Fed. Rep. 10. We think it requires no argument to demonstrate that the words complained of were pertinent and material to the cause, and the question to be determined is, were they absolutely privileged, regardless of whether they were true or false, used maliciously or in good faith. The doctrine of privileged communications rests upon public policy, 'which looks to the free and unfettered administration of justice, though, as an incidental result, it may, in some instances, afford an immunity to the evil-disposed and malignant slanderer.' Bartlett v. Christhilf, 69 Maryland, 219. It cannot be doubted that it is a privilege liable to be abused, and its abuse may ...


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