Mere filing, dismissal of suit do NOT warrant a complaint for malicious prosecution

In Limanch-O Hotel & Leasing Corp., et al. v. City of Olangapo, a complained was filed for damages due to malicious prosecution. It was alleged that the respondents filed a complaint for theft of electricity against petitioner Tiu alleging that he committed the crimes of theft of electricity and tampering with electric meter resulting in zero-zero power consumption. The cases were dismissed which was even affirmed by the Supreme Court. On the strength of this acquittal, the suit for malicious prosecution was filed. Tiu, the alleged thief, argued that he suffered mental anguish, serious anxiety, besmirched reputation, wounded feelings, moral shock and social humiliation and that petitioner Limanch-O Hotel suffered loss of business goodwill, financial reverses, and injured reputation, as a result of such criminal action for theft.

In its answer, the respondent City alleged that there was no ill motive in filing the criminal complaint. A demurrer to evidence was filed after plaintiff presented evidence and it was granted, dismissing the complaint, as there was no showing of legal malice.

WHAT DID THE SUPREME COURT SAY? To entitle the petitioners to damages for malicious prosecution, they needed to prove the following elements: (1) that the respondent had caused their prosecution; (2) that the criminal action ended in their acquittal; (3) that, in bringing the action, the complaint had no probable cause; and (4) that it was impelled by legal malice - an improper or a sinister motive.
The burden in suits for malicious prosecution is being able to prove the complainant’s deliberate initiation of a criminal action knowing the charge to be false and groundless. The respondent did not concoct out of thin air the criminal charge for theft of electricity against petitioners. It filed the case based on the result of an investigation carried out at Tiu’s premises which indicated a tampering of the electric meter. Indeed, petitioners never claimed that the inspection of Tiu’s premises was just a farce. The City did not merely conjure the charge with the intention of vexing the petitioners. It acted within its right to bring up the result of that investigation to the authorities for evaluation and resolution.

It is not enough to say that, since the Supreme Court sustained the Secretary of Justice’s finding that no probable cause for electricity theft existed against petitioners, a case for malicious prosecution already exists against the complainant.

The test should be whether sufficient facts exist which show that, in bringing the criminal action, complainant acted without probable cause, defined as the existence of such facts and circumstances as would excite the belief in a reasonable mind that the person charged and prosecuted in a criminal case is probably guilty of the crime or wrongdoing. Here, the fact that the filing of the complaint was prompted by the result of an investigation shows that the City had a reasonable ground to believe that a crime had probably been committed.

No evidence was shown that there had been bad blood between respondent and petitioners prior to the filing of the criminal charge, which circumstance if present could justify a malicious motive in filing the charge. Resort to judicial processes, by itself, is not an evidence of ill will which would automatically make the complainant liable for malicious prosecution. Otherwise, peaceful recourse to the courts will be greatly discouraged and the exercise of one’s right to litigate would become meaningless and empty. (G.R. No. 185121; January 18, 2010)