The “litigation privilege” is a judicially created privilege that protects participants—including attorneys, parties, and witnesses—in a judicial proceeding against civil liability for statements they make in the course of that proceeding. See, e.g., Mason v. Mason, 19 Wn. App. 2d 803, 830-31, 497 P.3d 431 (2021) review denied, 199 Wn.2d 1005 (2022); Deatherage v. Examining Bd. of Psychology, 134 Wn.2d 131, 135-36, 948 P.2d 828 (1997). As applied to witnesses, the privilege is sometimes referred to as witness immunity, and under it, “[a]s a general rule, witnesses in judicial proceedings are absolutely immune from suit based on their testimony.” Bruce v. Byrne-Stevens & Assocs. Eng’rs, Inc., 113 Wn.2d 123, 125, 776 P.2d 666 (1989).
Statements “are absolutely privileged if they are pertinent or material to the redress or relief sought, whether or not the statements are legally sufficient to obtain that relief.” McNeal v. Allen, 95 Wn.2d 265, 267, 621 P.2d 1285 (1980). But statements having “ ‘no connection whatever’ ” with the litigation are not privileged. Demopolis v. Peoples Nat. Bank of Wash., 59 Wn. App. 105, 110, 796 P.2d 426 (1990) (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS, § 586, comment c (AM. LAW INST. (1977))). Thus, not every passing statement made in court avoids liability. But the determination of pertinency is not a high bar. As the Restatement (Second) of Torts indicates, a statement “need not be strictly relevant to any issue” so long as it bears “some reference to the subject matter of the . . . litigation.” RESTATEMENT § 586, comment c.
Litigation privilege therefore prohibits liability stemming from statements (1) made in the course of a judicial proceeding (2) that are pertinent to the litigation. Pertinency is a question of law reviewed de novo. Demopolis, 59 Wn. App. at 110.
The purpose of the litigation privilege doctrine is to encourage frank, open, untimorous argument and testimony and to discourage retaliatory, derivative lawsuits. As applied to attorneys, it furthers “ ‘a public policy of securing to [counsel] as officers of the court the utmost freedom in their efforts to secure justice for their clients.’ ” Mason, 19 Wn. App. 2d at 831 (quoting McNeal, 95 Wn.2d at 267). As applied to witness testimony, it preserves “the integrity of the judicial process by encouraging full and frank testimony.” Bruce, 113 Wn.2d at 126. The rule addresses the concern that a witness may either be reluctant to come forward to testify in the first place or shade their testimony “to magnify uncertainties, and thus to deprive the finder of fact of candid, objective, and undistorted evidence.” Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 333, 103 S. Ct. 1108, 75 L. Ed. 2d 96 (1983).
Source: Young v. Rayan et al., Washington Court of Appeals, Div. 1, (No. 84426-1-I (06/26/2023).