Texas lawyer, Netflix lose defamation appeal concerning multimillionaire's court-appointed guardianship

Juliette Fairley

Netflix and the Bexar County attorney who were sued for defamation over an episodic called Dirty Money featuring the court-appointed guardianship of an elderly Texas multimillionaire have lost their first appeal.


The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio issued their opinion on Aug. 31 in favor of Tonya Barina who sued attorney Phil Ross, his paralegal Jo Anne Rivera and Netflix alleging they participated in a conspiracy that destroyed her name and reputation pertaining to Bexar County probate court proceedings of 83-year-old Charles Thrash.

“Media outlets that accurately report allegations made by a third party about matters of public concern can assert the truth as a defense,” wrote Appellate Judge Patricia Alvarez in the opinion. “However, media outlets must be careful not to accuse, malign or take the extra step of implying an accusation that forfeits the substantial truth defense.”

The Guardians Inc. episode about Thrash aired on March 11, 2020, but has since been removed from Netflix menu offerings.

“Because the media appellants [Netflix] have not established that they are entitled to dismissal through any affirmative defense, we conclude that the trial court did not err in denying their [Texas Citizens Participation Act] TCPA motion to dismiss accordingly,” Alvarez stated. “We affirm.”

Appellate justices Beth Watkins and Irene Rios concurred.

As previously reported in Southeast Texas Record, Thrash was worth some $3 million after owning an automotive shop on West Avenue in San Antonio for 50 years and had been in the news for marrying his divorcee girlfriend, Laura A Martinez, without his court-appointed guardian’s permission.

"There is no actual evidence of Barina committing wrongdoing,” Alvarez further stated. “Therefore, if the gist of the show unfairly defames her, the immediate appellants cannot avail themselves of the Fair Comment privilege to obtain dismissal of appellee’s defamation suit.”

In the defamation lawsuit against Netflix and Ross filed in Bexar County's 285th Judicial District, Barina also named Martinez and her adult children from a previous marriage: Brittany A. Martinez, Jose H. Martinez, and Michelle C. Martinez as defendants along with director Alex Gibney and Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions.

Gibney is one of America's most successful and prolific documentary filmmakers, according to the New York Times.

“In the episode, Ross, Laura, and Brittany present Thrash’s plight impugning his guardian,” Alvarez wrote. “Ross sits behind his desk and states confidently that Thrash has been exploited through his guardianship. His statement is featured and never challenged throughout the course of the documentary.”

Barina’s original complaint stated that nearly a year before the episode aired in May 2019, Attorney Ross and Laura Martinez were sanctioned by the Bexar County Probate Court in the sum of $222,974 for allegedly conspiring to fleece the Thrash estate.

Ross is reportedly subject to disciplinary proceedings.

“The trial court had found Ross, Laura, and Brittany not to be credible and the media appellants had been made aware of this finding,” Alvarez concluded.

Now that the appellate court has ruled on their appeal, Netflix is free to file a Petition for Review with the Texas Supreme Court.

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Juliette Fairley is a legal and financial investigative reporter who writes about politics, law, corruption, and many other topics. She is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Chicago City Wire, Legal Newsline, Southern California Record, St. Louis Record, New York Daily News, Dallas Express, Dallas City Wire, the Lone Star Standard, The Epoch Times, Newsmax, and many other publications.

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