Baton Rouge Plaintiff Loses Defamation Claim Due to Prescription

The following case highlights the importance of waiting no time in bringing a cause of action that is available. In 2008, Debra Goulas worked as a bookkeeper for Sunbelt Air Conditioning Supply in Baton Rouge. Jessie Touchet, owner of Sunbelt, and Diane Jones, Goulas’s manager, accused her of stealing over $500 from the company during February and April that year. This serious accusation resulted in Goulas being tried for felony theft. The crime of theft is committed when one is involved in a trespassory taking and carrying away of the property of another with the intent to permanently deprive the true owner of that property. Goulas was subsequently acquitted of this particular theft.

Following the criminal trial and Goulas’s ultimate accquital, she filed a lawsuit against Touchet and Jones in July, 2010 alleging defamation. Specifically, Goulas argued that Touchet and Jones “intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress” upon her, and that their accusations were “founded in malice to damage her person and reputation.” The complaint sought damages for medical expenses, physical and mental pain and suffering, and loss of wages. The defendants filed an exception of prescription. The basis of the exception was that Goulas’s claims were based on the defendants’ actions that allegedly occurred during February and April of 2008. By the time Goulas filed suit in 2010, more than one year had passed, thereby prescribing the claims. In October, 2010, the trial judge granted the defendants’ exception of prescription and dismissed Goulas’s claims with prejudice.

Goulas appealed, alleging error on the trial court’s ruling that her defamation claim was prescribed. Goula’s reasoned that she could not initiate her defamation action until her criminal trial was concluded in March, 2010; accordingly, she argued that prescription did not begin to run until Frederick Jones publicly accused her of theft when testifying at her trial. The First Circuit noted that Louisiana recognizes a qualified privilege that protects parties from charges of defamation related to statements they make during a trial. “It necessarily follows that, during this time, the one-year period that applies to the filing of a defamation action is suspended.” However, the court explained, the suspension of prescription applies “only to allegedly defamatory statements made by parties to a lawsuit.” In this situation, Frederick and Jones were not parties to Goulas’s criminal prosecution, so the prescription suspension did not apply. The court concluded that “since there has been no suspension of the 2008 alleged defamatory statements,” the trial court properly granted the defendants’ exception of prescription.

This result was no doubt a painful lesson to Goulas that prescriptive periods and other rules of Louisiana civil procedure can be complex and confusing. At worst, such as here, missing a deadline can prove fatal to a plaintiff’s case. Accordingly, it is critical that victims who think they may have a claim should consult a knowledgeable attorney immediately. Do not wait if you think you have a claim against someone and be sure to way all of the appropriate options including an immediate counterclaim, which may have worked in Goulas’s favor. Time may very well be of the essence in order to secure a day in court.

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