The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment for our clients in Rowell v. Southwestern Bell Telephone Co and Frank Skupien. Congratulations to our clients and the lawyers who handled the case: Jeremy Ward, Emily Pearson, and Jennifer Ary.
To briefly explain the case, during late 2012 and early 2013 AT&T experienced significant overhead copper cable theft. Each theft was reported to the local authorities. On January 31, 2013 plaintiff Billy Wayne Rowell sold 289 pounds of copper cable to a salvage company. The salvage company in turn reported the sale to the Creek County Sheriff’s office. The Sheriff’s office requested AT&T’s representative inspect the copper cable. The AT&T representative informed the officers that the copper cable had unique AT&T identifiers but it was not the cable AT&T had reported stolen. The local authorities then referred the matter to the Payne County Sheriff’s office because the sale occurred in Payne County.
An employee of the salvage company told the Payne County Deputy that plaintiff was the individual who sold the subject cable. Without speaking with the plaintiff, the Payne County Deputy obtained a felony arrest warrant. At the time, the defendants had no knowledge of plaintiff, had not identified him and never requested any warrant be issued for his arrest. Reports of the warrant were then aired by news stations in Payne County. Subsequent investigation revealed that plaintiff worked for a contracting company that uncovered the cable while excavating a job site. The contractor was able to remove the cable during the project and it was the contractor’s standard practice to dispose of it as trash or allow its employees to sell it to local salvage yards. After learning of these details the arrest warrant was withdrawn four days later.
Plaintiff sued the defendants alleging defamation. Plaintiff claimed that AT&T, through its representative, made false and derogatory statements to law enforcement officials concerning the subject cable and the comments caused plaintiff to be accused of a crime. Defendants moved for summary judgment than plaintiff dismissed without prejudice. Plaintiff then refiled the lawsuit alleging simple negligence. However, plaintiff’s petition and first amended petition, like his original in the first action, claimed that AT&T’s representative made false and derogatory statements to law enforcement officials. In the second action defendants again moved for summary judgment asserting that plaintiff’s claims were founded in defamation, the claims were time-barred, and AT&T’s communications with law enforcement were privileged. The trial court granted AT&T’s dispositive motion holding that plaintiff’s claims were actually rooted in defamation, not negligence, and the qualified privilege applied for reporting information to a law enforcement representative. Defendant’s motion was granted and plaintiff appealed.
The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals agreed with the defendant’s position that plaintiff’s initial arguments were rooted in defamation. Even as a private individual (not a media company) plaintiff was not permitted to disguise his defamation claims as simple negligence. Because plaintiff’s claims were rooted in defamation, the fact that AT&T’s representative made the statements to law enforcement personnel established the qualified privilege applied and therefore the defendant could not be held liable for defamation. The trial court’s granting of defendants’ motion for summary judgment was proper and affirmed.
Defendants were granted judgment against Plaintiff for litigation costs incurred during the case.