Weber appeals ruling on Diehl to high court
May 04, 2005 - Fred Weber Inc. has taken its $5 million defamation lawsuit against Oakville resident Tom Diehl to the state's highest court.
Weber's appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court contends the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals bowed to political pressure by basing its ruling, in part, on the Legislature's intent to quash so-called Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, or SLAPP suits.
The Missouri Legislature last year approved legislation allowing for the speedy dismissal of SLAPP suits, but the law wasn't effective when Diehl was sued in February 2004. This year, lawmakers have discussed expanding the anti-SLAPP statute but nothing yet has been approved.
The appellate court mentioned "legislative intent" in its opinion to dismiss the case, but Weber claims any slight mention of the intent is inappropriate because the Missouri and U.S. constitutions don't allow the retroactive application of laws.
"Does it pass constitutional muster for an appellate court to apply a law not yet effective, change long-standing principles of defamation law, eliminate the function of the trial judge and usurp the power of the jury?" Weber's motion asks. "That is what the Court of Appeals did in this case ...
"The Court of Appeals created and reshaped the law to rationalize its aiding of (Diehl) in this highly politicized and publicized case," the motion states.
"Importantly, this is not a SLAPP suit," it continues. "A SLAPP suit typically occurs when a developer files suit against opponents at the outset of any opposition. Here, however, (Diehl) opposed the trash-transfer station for long over a year and was, by his own admission, an outspoken critic. He attended public meetings, spoke out and spearheaded opposition ... It was only when (Diehl) defamed the company personally that Weber sued (Diehl). There was no effort by Weber to stop (Diehl) from opposing the trash-transfer station and, in fact, (Diehl) continued his opposition after suit was filed."
The company sued Diehl in 2004 for his association with distributed fliers calling Weber "trash terrorists" in opposition to the company's attempt to construct a trash-transfer station in Oakville. Weber sued for libel, slander, defamation and business conspiracy, seeking $5 million in punitive damages and at least $25,000 in actual damages.
The appellate court threw out the case, declaring the statement "trash terrorist" a matter of opinion, not a false statement of fact and therefore inapplicable to libel, slander, defamation or business conspiracy law.
Weber disagrees and also claims the ruling gives a blanket immunity for people to maliciously defame companies seeking government licenses.
"The Court of Appeals essentially held that citizens forfeit their reputations when exercising the First Amendment rights to petition the government," the motion states. "With one stroke of the pen, the Court of Appeals eradicated years of defamation jurisprudence and stripped away the rights of a citizen to petition the government without fear of unfair reprisal."
Weber's motion also contends that a jury should have ruled on the case, not the three-judge panel of the Eastern District Court of Appeals.
"Whether 'trash terrorist' was understood as defamatory is constitutionally within the exclusive province of the jury," the motion stated, citing two previous Missouri court rulings. "Yet the Court of Appeals usurped the role of the jury in direct conflict with the decisions ...
"This case presents a broad range of constitutional issues and questions that concern all the citizens of Missouri who interact with the government for licenses, variances or any other purposes," the motion concludes.
The Missouri Supreme Court may or may not decide to hear the case. At press time Monday, a decision hadn't been made.