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So to begin, I am well aware you can sue anyone for anything in court, whether or not it has a foundation in law or reality.

That being said, can one be found guilty for defamation if they bring a completely baseless trial against an individual/entity(without any public statements or the like, just the trial itself), as trials are more or less public events?

Would this differ for public vs private figures in practice? Any relevant case law to back up your stance is appreciated.

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Short Answer

Can one be found guilty for defamation if they bring a completely baseless trial against an individual/entity(without any public statements or the like, just the trial itself), as trials are more or less public events?

No. Someone can't sue for defamation for something said in a trial. There is an absolute immunity from defamation liability for anything said in a court proceeding. (Strictly speaking "found guilty" would apply only in criminal defamation cases which are vanishingly rare in the U.S., while "held liable" would be the proper terminology in a lawsuit for civil damages which is how almost all U.S. defamation cases are litigated.)

Would this differ for public vs private figures in practice?

No.

Detailed Answer

The Restatement of Torts is a document prepared by distinguished law professors and a committee of leading experts on tort law, and approved by the American Bar Association, which sets forth majority positions on principles of the common law in a codified form, that are widely used as references for that purpose by state courts and adopted as law in circumstances where a state court has no clear case law on point. The Restatement of Torts sets forth a variety of absolute immunities from defamation liability (a common law tort) that are almost universally honored by state courts.

Both parties to litigation and witnesses have absolute immunity from defamation liability for statements made in connection with a judicial proceeding.

A party to a private litigation or a private prosecutor or defendant in a criminal prosecution is absolutely privileged to publish defamatory matter concerning another in communications preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding, or in the institution of or during the course and as a part of, a judicial proceeding in which he participates, if the matter has some relation to the proceeding.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 587 (1977)

A witness is absolutely privileged to publish defamatory matter concerning another in communications preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding or as a part of a judicial proceeding in which he is testifying, if it has some relation to the proceeding.

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 588 (1977).

There are also similar absolute privileges from defamation liability for judicial officers (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 585), attorneys' at law for a party (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 586), and jurors (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 589).

The absolute privilege from defamation liability for attorneys for a party in connection with court proceedings has been described as follows:

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 586 (1977), adopted in Colorado in Renner v. Chilton, 142 Colo. 454, 351 P.2d 277 (1960) states:

“An attorney at law is absolutely privileged to publish defamatory matter concerning another in communications preliminary to a proposed judicial proceeding, or in the institution of, or during the course and as a part of, a judicial proceeding in which he participates as counsel, if it has some relation to the proceeding.”

Club Valencia Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Valencia Associates, 712 P.2d 1024, 1027 (Colo. App. 1985)

There is also a widely recognized (and arguably constitutionally required) qualified immunity from defamation liability for people making an accurate report of what was said in court that would otherwise be defamatory, so long as it is indeed a substantially accurate account:

[U]nder the common law doctrine of fair report, reports of in-court proceedings containing defamatory material are privileged if they are fair and substantially correct, or are substantially accurate accounts of what took place. See Rosenberg v. Helinski, 328 Md. 664, 616 A.2d 866 (1992); Cianci v. New Times Publishing Co., 639 F.2d 54 (2d Cir.1980) (recognizing common law privilege of fair report of public court trials as far back as 1796).

Tonnessen v. Denver Pub. Co., 5 P.3d 959, 964 (Colo. App. 2000).

There are myriad cases upholding these privileges, which have been widely recognized even prior to the Revolutionary War in North American common law court cases adopting the English common law rules in place at the time.

Why Does Absolute Immunity Exist In These Circumstances?

There are several basic policy justifications for this form of immunity.

One is that is avoids the risk of collateral litigation arising from ordinary lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

A second one that is closely related is that it eliminates the extraneous considerations that might discourage someone from being truthful at trial for fear of a defamation lawsuit which might be costly to defend even if the court participant prevailed.

A third one is that it creates an incentive to use the court system to resolve disputes over sensitive issues that could damage reputations, rather than in public relations fights in the media and other public forums that are less structured, or, for example, in duels (a pervasive problem in much of the U.S. until the late 19th century when they were effectively banned and American culture ceased to approve of them as valid or necessary to avenge one's honor).

Also, while defamation litigation is prohibited based upon statements made in court proceedings, there are, in principle, other means of punishing false statements made in court proceedings or other defamatory conduct in court proceedings. It is a crime, perjury, to make a false statement under oath in a court proceeding (although perjury is rarely prosecuted in practice relative to how frequently it occurs).

A judge can strike scandalous and unnecessary materials in court documents that would be defamatory, can order court documents placed under seal, can order that the public be barred from court proceedings in certain kinds of circumstances, can bar parties to court cases and their attorneys from disclosing otherwise secret matters in court cases, and can hold someone in contempt of court for improperly making defamatory statements public when they were ordered not to do so.

Finally, if a trier of fact does not believe a false statement made in a court proceeding, the judge or jury can rule against that person on the claim that the false statement supports, and a judge can say that the judge believed that the statement made was false.

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    It might be worthwhile pointing out that similar immunity applies to legislative deliberations and testimony – Dale M Jan 16 at 2:00
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So "Trial" is a specific phase of the litigation processes that formally begins with jury enpanlement (in the U.S.) and ends with the verdict (If Not Guilty) or the Sentencing Phase (if Guilty, and I'm sure it's called something else in Civil Cases).

When you file to sue someone, the first step is one of many pretrial motions will be for a judge to find cause. If the judge doesn't find cause, the case is dimsisssed without trial. If the judge does find cause, then the case may move to Discovery, which is where the real fun happens. In U.S. Civil Law, Discovery is very broad in what each side of the case may request to hand over evidence... and all evidence is disclosed publicly, especially the dirty laundry the litigants don't want the public to know. Often time, upon a judges anouncement that they will hear the case, the plaintif and the defense will settle (which is undisclosed but typically the Defense and Plaintiff will work out an agreeable sum of damages to be paid to the Plaintiff so long as the Plaintiff does not sue the Defendant over the same matter ever again AND does not discuss the dollar value of the payment.). It may sound strange to pay the Plaintiff to go away, but often the threat of showing the world the bad things you don't want seen is serious enough damage that just paying up is cheaper (it need not be information that was illegal. It's perfectly legal to despise children, but a Toy Company really doesn't want a CEO's numerous e-mails refering to their primary customer base as "spoiled snot-nosed cry baby-brats... and their children". The parents who buy the companies toys aren't going to be happy about that.)

If at any point up to but not including the Jury's verdict being read aloud in open court, the parties can move to dismiss the case and if granted, then the Plaintiff is not "Guilty" of anything because no jury found him guilty. Even though the payment in a settlement might be punitive, they can save face. Most cases in the U.S. never go to a court room because of this reason and the ones that do are typically brought by stubborn litigants and large sums of cash (or pro-bona lawyers) on either or even both sides. It also means that there's no case law entered into record so the Plaintiff may still conduct business in the manner addressed and anyone who is injured after the fact will start the process all over again.

It's hard to tell what specifically you want to know as I'm not sure entirely what you are asking, but if this isn't a good answer, please clarify what's going on. It helps if you can show an example case that prompted this question.

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