In Tennessee, the essential elements of a malicious prosecution claim are (1) the defendant filed suit or instituted a judicial proceeding without probable cause, (2) the defendant brought the action with malice, and (3) the prior action was finally terminated in the plaintiff’s favor.
If the judgment in the prior action is terminated in the plaintiff’s favor, then the probable cause element is also met so long as the judgment was not procured by fraud.
A malicious prosecution claim may be brought as a result of a civil or criminal matter.
Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed the dismissal of a malicious prosecution case in a civil matter in Meeks v. Gasaway. In this case, an attorney, Mr. Meeks, sued other attorneys for bringing a suit on behalf of their client against Mr. Meeks regarding title to two pieces of property. The facts of the underlying case are not important, other than to say that the parties resolved the case by settlement agreement while they were in the midst of a jury trial. Following the settlement agreement, Mr. Meeks filed his malicious prosecution claim, but his claim was dismissed by the trial court.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals focused in the third element – whether the prior action was terminated in Mr. Meeks’s favor. The court explained that Tennessee uses a flexible approach to this element. A judgment must be on the merits and not on procedural or flexible grounds. The Tennessee Supreme Court has previously held that abandoning or withdrawing an allegedly malicious claim is sufficient to establish a final termination in the plaintiff’s favor unless it is accompanied by a settlement or compromise. The court recognized a long line of cases in Tennessee that preclude a party from filing a malicious prosecution claim for a claim that he or she settled. The court explained that the reasoning behind this rule is based in Tennessee public policy that favors settlement agreements and compromises over litigation. If parties who settle claims were still open to prosecution for malicious prosecution, they would be discouraged from compromising cases.
Thus, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and upheld dismissal of Mr. Meeks’s malicious prosecution claim.
One interesting point of note – Mr. Meeks sued the lawyers of the opposing party and not the opposing party himself for malicious prosecution. The defendants did not raise the issue of whether lawyers who merely represent a plaintiff in the underlying case can be liable in a malicious prosecution claim for the underlying case, and therefore the Court of Appeals did not address that question.
For additional information about Tennessee malicious prosecution law click on the link.