Malicious prosecution is a common law intentional tort. Like the tort of abuse of process, its elements include (1) intentionally (and maliciously) instituting and pursuing (or causing to be instituted or pursued) a legal action (civil or criminal) that is (2) brought without probable cause and (3) dismissed in favor of the victim of the malicious prosecution. In some jurisdictions, the term “malicious prosecution” denotes the wrongful initiation of criminal proceedings, while the term “malicious use of process” denotes the wrongful initiation of civil proceedings.
Criminal prosecuting attorneys and judges are protected from tort liability for malicious prosecution by doctrines of prosecutorial immunity and judicial immunity. Moreover, the mere filing of a complaint cannot constitute an abuse of process. The parties who have abused or misused the process have gone beyond merely filing a lawsuit. The taking of an appeal, even a frivolous one, is not enough to constitute an abuse of process. The mere filing or maintenance of a lawsuit, even for an improper purpose, is not a proper basis for an abuse of process action.
Declining to expand the tort of malicious prosecution, a unanimous California Supreme Court in the case of Sheldon Appel Co. v. Albert & Oliker, 47 Cal. 3d 863, 873 (1989) observed: “While the filing of frivolous lawsuits is certainly improper and cannot in any way be condoned, in our view the better means of addressing the problem of unjustified litigation is through the adoption of measures facilitating the speedy resolution of the initial lawsuit and authorizing the imposition of sanctions for frivolous or delaying conduct within that first action itself, rather than through an expansion of the opportunities for initiating one or more additional rounds of malicious prosecution litigation after the first action has been concluded.”
The tort originates in the (now defunct) legal maxim that “the King pays no costs”; that is, the Crown could not be forced to pay the legal costs of a person it prosecuted, even if that person was found innocent. As The London Magazine stated in 1766: “if a groundless and vexatious prosecution be commenced in the King’s name, his ministers who commenced, or advised commencing that prosecution, ought at least to be obliged to pay the costs which an innocent subject has thereby been put to”.
Notably, the tort of malicious prosecution only protects the right of defendants to be free of frivolous lawsuits brought by malicious plaintiffs. For a variety of reasons grounded in public policy, courts have consistently refused to authorize the converse — a tort of malicious defense which would protect the right of plaintiffs to be free of frivolous defenses raised by defendants.