Oakville man sued by Fred Weber Inc.
Fred Weber Inc. is accusing an Oakville resident of trashing the 75-year-old company's name.
But the anti-Fred Weber activist claims he is being persecuted for exercising his right to free speech.
Fred Weber Inc. filed suit Feb. 20 in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Tom Diehl and is seeking $5 million in punitive damages and at least $25,000 in actual damages.
Diehl faces counts of slander, libel, civil conspiracy and business defamation for his alleged association with fliers that were distributed last December identifying Fred Weber Inc. as "trash terrorists," according to claims made by the company in the suit.
The suit also accuses John Does or other unknown "co-conspirators" of the same counts that Diehl faces.
Diehl publicly has opposed Fred Weber's efforts to construct a trash-transfer station in Oakville for more than a year.
The suit asserts that the word "terrorists" accompanies a negative connotation of "acts of injuring and killing innocent people by fanatics who hate the United States."
The suit states, "The false, libelous and slanderous statements of defendants and the false innuendo surrounding them naturally and proximately led persons ... to believe that FWI (Fred Weber Inc.) has killed and injured people or that the proposed South Transfer Station would kill and injure people and that FWI was unethical, immoral and disreputable in its business dealings.
"... FWI is not a terrorist, FWI is not fanatical, FWI has not killed or injured people at any time and FWI does not hate the United States,'' according to the lawsuit.
Fred Weber Inc. accuses Diehl, or agents of Diehl, of publishing, authoring and distributing the fliers that also ask the public to "consider" using trash haulers who are not affiliated with Fred Weber and contribute money to a "Stop Fred Weber Fund,'' the suit states.
As a result of the distribution of the fliers, Fred Weber claims in the suit that Diehl "impugned" and "damaged" the company's reputation, causing a loss of at least $100,000 to date because of lost business.
"... Many businesses accustomed to dealing with FWI either ceased dealing with, threatened to cease dealing with or diminished their business dealings with FWI ..." the suit states. "FWI has been deprived of its trade and the reasonable profits which it would have enjoyed but for the publication, dissemination, distribution and utterance of the false, libelous and slanderous statements."
The company, according to the suit, has been exposed to hatred and ridicule, has lost public confidence and has been brought into public disgrace among the business community because of the distribution of the "offending" flier.
Fred Weber is requesting a permanent injunction and is asking that all copies of the fliers, including any electronic or mechanical copies, be submitted to St. Louis County Circuit Court.
Until last week, Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc. also was named in the suit as a defendant. However, Fred Weber dropped its suit against Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc. March 4, according to a letter addressed to Diehl.
Subdivision Fee Collectors, a company that collects assessments for subdivisions on such items as common ground maintenance, was used by Diehl and other Oakville residents to maintain a bank account funded by residents' donations for activism efforts last year.
Diehl's alleged association with the authorship and distribution of the fliers was discovered through an investigation, which involved Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc. under subpoena to provide information, according to a Feb. 12 letter to Diehl that was written by an attorney representing Fred Weber, Jeffrey Brian Hunt of Gallop Johnson & Neuman.
"The offending flier was far beyond any legally permissible speech and constituted tortious conduct, for which FWI will seek financial damages ... FWI filed suit against Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc. because its name appeared on the offending flier," Hunt stated in the letter.
Contacted by the Call, representatives from Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc. declined to comment.
Hunt warned Diehl that if he did not comply with Fred Weber's requests listed in the Feb. 12 letter in five days he would be added to the then-pending suit that already involved Subdivision Fee Collectors Inc.
"... FWI demands that you cease and desist all such activity immediately and that you provide us with the identity of the other parties who designed, distributed or otherwise were involved in any way with the offending fliers," Hunt stated.
Hunt did not return this newspaper's calls before press time. Thomas Barta, spokesman of Fred Weber, was out of town and did not comment on the suit, but a public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard, distributed a statement on Barta's behalf.
"We took this action only after serious thought," Barta stated in the Fleishman-Hillard release. "... We have worked hard to build a good reputation, and we cannot sit back while others attempt to harm that reputation by spreading lies. While other people certainly have to the right to speak out on issues, this deliberate and underhanded attempt to damage our business is wrong, and simply unfair. That's why we took this action to protect our company."
However, Gary Feder, an attorney with Husch & Eppenberger who is representing Fred Weber in its current application to construct a trash-transfer station on 4200 Baumgartner Road, did comment March 1 on a potential suit against Diehl. He had noted no suit, at that time, had been served to Diehl. Diehl was not served until 6:25 p.m. Tuesday, March 2. Suit documents were delivered to his home in Oakville while he attended a County Council meeting in Clayton, in which he voiced health concerns on the presence of two asphalt piles in Fred Weber's south quarry — the site of the company's current application for a trash-transfer station. That night Diehl submitted a petition with 150 signatures to councilmen calling for environmental testing in and around the asphalt piles.
"Mr. Diehl and others were basically told ... it's one thing to oppose the rezoning and to say that you think it's a bad idea," Feder said. "It's another to accuse the company that's involved of fraud, calling it a terrorist, which is in numerous materials sent out — and things that say, 'Don't deal with the following trash haulers because they deal with Fred Weber. (Instead) Deal with these trash haulers because they don't deal with Fred Weber.' We think that's interference with business and that has nothing to do with whether you're in favor of rezoning or not, just like claiming a company has committed fraud."
Feder continued, "Those are all serious things that we've asked people like Mr. Diehl — not to stop opposing the project, if he wants to oppose the project, that's fine. It's certainly his right — just don't accuse the company of fraud, don't call them terrorists and don't try to interfere with their business ...''
To Feder's knowledge, Diehl had not accused Fred Weber of fraud. But Mike Bram of Oakville, Feder added, stated numerous times during a March 1 Department of Zoning meeting that the company had committed fraud and that is speech the "company won't tolerate."
Diehl said he did not distribute the fliers and he did not coin the term, "trash terrorist." A short Internet search using the term, he said, reveals articles and information on people in the trash industry from other communities who are trying to "intimidate and force their way" on the community, using "extortion, threats and fear to get what they want" and are referred to, in those articles, as trash terrorists.
"The people of south county believe that Fred Weber Inc. is a trash terrorist," Diehl told the Call. "They are entitled to that belief. Whether Fred Weber's attorneys like it or not, nobody in south county has to like them."
He believes the suit is a tactic to infringe on his right to free speech, according to Diehl.
"Last I heard the First Amendment was in effect in St. Louis County," he said. "This whole suit is just an attempt to coerce me into stopping my fight against them ... They want to intimidate people in St. Louis County. They want people in Oakville to stop fighting trash-transfer stations. They're trying to scare people away from these hearings."
More than 300 people recently attended a Department of Zoning hearing on Fred Weber's current application to construct a trash-transfer station on 4200 Baumgartner Road and more than 500 people attended a hearing on the same matter in December, which was conducted by the Department of Health. Both departments still are processing Fred Weber's applications.
More than 1,000 Oakville residents attended a June public hearing sponsored by the health department on Fred Weber's application to construct a trash-transfer station on 5219 Baumgartner Road and raised noise, odor and other community concerns. In July, about 800 people attended a public hearing on that same proposal that was sponsored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
In August, nearly 200 residents who opposed a trash-transfer station being built on 5219 Baumgartner Road attended a County Council Committee of the Whole meeting where legislation to impose a 1,000-foot restriction on waste processing facilities was discussed.
The DNR and health department both rejected Fred Weber's proposal for 5219 Baumgartner Road and the 1,000-foot restriction for waste-processing facilities, authored by Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, was unanimously approved and took effect last fall.
"They're tired of losing," Diehl said of Fred Weber. "I am angered that this company would stoop to trying to deny anyone their constitutional rights to speak out on public issues ... I am not going to drop my fight. I know that much."
Campisi told the Call he was surprised to learn of the suit against Diehl, the Oakville resident he recently had asked to represent the 6th District on a county solid waste advisory panel because of his involvement with the issues surrounding trash-transfer stations in south county.
"I find it kind of odd that a company like Fred Weber would do such a thing," Campisi said. "People expect more from a company like that. To intimidate people in the way they are right now — I find it really appalling."