Sticks and Stones

“Individuals are immune from any civil claims for oral or written statements or comments on matters of public concern … if the remarks are not baseless.”

Local residents, whose disparaging but not entirely baseless comments about a recycling operation were published, cannot be sued by the recycler for alleged losses resulting from the news stories, according to a ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. [Global Waste Recycling Inc. v. Mallette, 762 A.2d 1208 (2000)]

Since 1995, Global Waste Recycling (Global) has operated a construction and demolition (C&D) facility in a residential area under a consent judgment and operating plan signed by Global and state environmental officials. Global took over the site after a prior operator had allowed unsold debris and materials to accumulate. Among other commitments, Global agreed to promptly process the stockpiled materials and to comply with all applicable recycling and waste management laws.

After state officials toured the site, they warned Global about violations of the operating plan, particularly growing piles of C&D material. Area residents, including Henry and Marcia Mallette, whose home adjoins the site, worried about contaminated drinking water, airborne pollutants from composted materials and the risk of fires. Indeed, a blaze at the site drew firefighters from approximately 12 communities and took more than two hours to extinguish.

At the fire scene, a reporter from a local newspaper interviewed several local residents, including Mr. Mallette who reportedly said, “Who knows what they're burning over there. They say it's mulch, but I know what it is. It's lead and asbestos and every other thing.”

A week later, the newspaper did a follow-up story on Global's operation and its neighborhood's concern. Mrs. Mallette told a reporter that “old homes are taken in there and piled up. I don't think any recycling is going on.” Her comment and comments from others were published.

Claiming that its recycling business and reputation had been destroyed by the Mallettes' published remarks, Global filed suit against them for economic and punitive damages. The trial judge ruled in favor of the Mallettes and awarded them attorney's fees, finding that the suit was an attempt by Global to silence legitimate statements on a matter of public concern.

On appeal, the state high court upheld the lower court's judgment, citing a state law that limits “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.” Under the anti-SLAPP statute, individuals are immune from any civil claims for oral or written statements or comments on matters of public concern, but only if the remarks are not baseless.

Echoing the findings of the trial courts, the justices noted that the comments addressed the operation of the recycling plant, which is a matter of public concern, and “were typical of [remarks] made by citizens … who wish to spark or spur governmental action … [and who] often use the news media … for communicating their concerns.”

“Given … the Mallettes' personal observations [and] the history of information from the [state], any expectation [of] favorable governmental action … could not be deemed to be unreasonable,” the opinion concluded.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected]