Friday, October 28, 2005

Envrionmental activists who opposed Sand Livestock System's starting large hog farms in Furnas County will test effect of Section 25-21,243 Nebraska's anti-SLAPP law {Stratgeic lawsuit against Public Participation}(and this time the big bad company is out of business WORLD-HERALD OGALLALA, Neb. - A jury will decide whether two citizens and their attorney exercised their free-speech rights or defamed what once was one of the nation's largest hog producers. A trial that opened here Tuesday pits Furnas County Farms and Sand Livestock Systems and their corporate heads, Chuck Sand and Tim Cumberland, against Hayes County farmers Char Hamilton and Duane Fortkamp and their attorney, Amy Svoboda.The case is seen as an important test of constitutional rights. It is the first trial involving a Section 25-21,243"the 1994 Nebraska anTI- SLAPP law that protects people who comment on controversial issues from being quieted by harassing lawsuits. Section 25-21,243 {Defendant in action involving public petition and participation; action authorized; costs, attorney's fees, and damages; authorized; waiver; section, how construed.} The law allows citizens to countersue companies that sue them to recover their legal expenses and damages, which happened in this case. The hog firms recently offered to settle the lawsuit for $45,000, an offer that was rejected by the main defendants as inadequate to cover five years of legal bills and other damages. In their countersuit, the citizens and their attorneys - which include lawyers from Georgia and Kansas City, Mo., and help from the firm of environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. - ask for damages of up to $5 million. The lead attorney for the defendants, Richard Middleton of Savannah, Ga., said his clients have suffered health and financial problems. They have had to live "with a cloud over their head" because of what he called "a frivolous lawsuit." Middleton told the jury of seven women and five men in his opening statement: "This is an attack on the First Amendment. The purpose was to stop, to shut up, to harass and intimidate Amy Svoboda and these citizens."The lead attorney for the hog firms, John Recknor of Lincoln, told jurors that the case is a "simple" slander case. "Somebody defamed us," he said. "We asked them to stop it, they didn't, so we sued them."Among the slanderous comments, Recknor said, were that the hog firms were responsible for a methane asphyxiation death at a Michigan hog site and that they had ignored regulations and operated without proper permits. Chuck Sand of Columbus, the principal owner of the firms, said the matter came to a head when he got telephone death threats at his home over what he considered to be false statements about the companies. The case involves a proposal by the companies in 2000 to build a 44,000-head swine facility in Hayes County in southwest Nebraska. The proposal came at the height of controversies over the environmental impact of large livestock confinement operations and at a time when many counties - including Hayes - were passing zoning regulations to try to minimize odors. A group of local citizens, led by Hamilton and Fortkamp, formed Area Citizens for Resources and Environmental Concerns to oppose the facility. Their attorney, Svoboda, spoke at several public meetings on the proposed facility. She submitted a letter to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality listing several reasons why it should deny a permit for the operation. Svoboda's attorney said all the comments can be verified and were backed up by Sand employees in depositions taken before the trial. Recknor, in turn, said some of the statements were "demonstrably false." Svoboda, he said, was sent a letter asking her to retract the statements. He said a Sand representative told her that her comments were "not quite right," but she persisted. Middleton, however, said the hog companies consulted with a Colorado law firm about how to silence Svoboda several weeks before filing their slander suit. When Svoboda was asked to retract her statements, he said, she offered to sit down with Sand and hear any evidence that showed the statements were incorrect. The firms' response was a lawsuit, not a meeting. Furnas County Farms declared bankruptcy a year ago and was sold. At the time, it was considered to be the nation's 15th-largest hog producer, turning out 1 million hogs a year. Although the company won state approval for the facility in Hayes County, the site was never built because it didn't meet county setback provisions. Sand Livestock Systems also is not operating, said Chuck Sand, but it still has assets. The trial is being held in Keith County because that is where Svoboda lives, although the lawsuit was filed in Platte County, the home of Sand Livestock.

1 comment:

Pam said...

I found this while looking for Amy Svoboda's number. Can you tell me what happened in this case? Did Amy win?

Thanks, Pam Daly
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