Accusing a solid waste professional of being a thief and a crook is unusual even for the harshest critics of our industry. So perhaps when Albany, Ga.-based TransWaste System's Chris Cannon fired back at his accuser by filing a defamation lawsuit, his actions were a little strange, but not completely unreasonable. What makes this case interesting, however, is that the alleged perpetrator of the name-calling — Crisp County, Ga., hog farmer Bruce Mathis — used the Internet to lodge his charges.
The source of Mathis' frustrations was a solid waste facility (surprise, surprise) constructed in late 1998. The plant's mission was impressive: to process and recycle the garbage from dozens of surrounding southwest Georgia communities. Important parts of the puzzle had fallen into place. For example, communities were lining up to sign contracts, and the county's solid waste authority had hired TransWaste to deliver the goods.
Unfortunately, the plan failed; TransWaste sued the authority, which then countersued; and a good time was had by all. By January of this year, the lawsuits were dropped. Surrounding counties also began to bail out of their agreements, and TransWaste was asked to bring cash if it wanted to deliver waste to the facility. The processing plant now is up for sale.
Every good solid waste drama has a Greek Chorus, and Mathis was one of the folks singing in the Crisp County choir. The tune turned sour, however, when Mathis, armed with the Internet, issued a simple message. On Nov. 4, 1999, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mathis wrote: “if u deal with cannon u a crook too !!!!!!! so stay out of crisp county and we thank u for it (sic).”
Cannon sued for defamation eight weeks later saying that Mathis' statements were not true and lacked foundation; he is asking for $1 million in punitive damages.
Mathis has since given a sworn affidavit stating that his characterization of Cannon, “as a crook and a thief was not meant to be specifically that I knew of any instance in which he had stole anything from anybody.”
The case now is in the hands of the Georgia Supreme Court, whose decision could affect the way the rest of the country determines libel claims from the Internet. It seems fitting that this potentially precedent-setting case involves the waste industry; often, the opposition to our attempts to manage solid waste are completely hogwash.
The author is the editorial director of Waste Age