Trials & Litigation

Lawyer says he will drop suit alleging website unfairly cast him as a 'tree mutilator'

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A Missouri lawyer says he plans to drop a lawsuit that claims a website and commenters unfairly cast him as a “tree mutilator.”

Columbia, Mo., personal injury lawyer Aaron Smith says he will drop the suit so his law firm can devote full attention to its existing caseload, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported last week. The defendant publication, the Columbia Heart Beat, posted the suit (PDF) and wrote about it here.

Smith had sued after Heart Beat publisher Mike Martin wrote a story about reader complaints over the removal of trees from Smith’s property. The readers said Smith’s property looked like a “wasteland” after he “gouged and mutilated” several trees that he removed. Martin agreed that the yard looked desolate. “It looks like a brontosaurus had lunch in the front yard,” his story stated. The quoted readers were named as defendants, along with Martin and the publication.

The original Columbia Heart Beat article referred to Smith’s property address but did not name Smith. Smith’s suit claimed the article placed him in a false light and amounted to invasion of privacy by casting him as “a tree mutilator that has no care or compassion for his community or its natural aesthetics.”

After publication of the article, the suit says, several people passed by Smith’s property “shouting unsolicited, negative comments … that publicly exclaim their disdain for the tree removal.”

Smith identified himself in online comments to the story. An arborist had concluded that many of his trees were dying and diseased, and they should be removed and replaced with new trees, he explained. One tree had already crashed to the ground, he said.

“Dead, dying, diseased, and misplaced trees all present dangers to humans,” Smith wrote. “No tree, I don’t care how great, grand, or old, is worth one human life.” He plans to plant several species of new trees. The Columbia Heart Beat published excerpts of those comments in a separate story, but Smith says the article should have carried his comments in their entirety.

Smith told the Columbia Tribune he filed the suit to give the Heart Beat’s publisher and others “pause to consider the possible consequences before hurting others with their careless words.”

“I thought it was time Mr. Martin, and anyone else who chose to publish their words to the world, learned that bullies get punched back from time to time,” he said.

Smith elaborated in a statement to the ABA Journal. He noted that the Columbia Heart Beat published a story on Thursday discussing his cause of action for false light invasion of privacy, and he voluntarily dismissed his suit the same day. “The reasons for dismissing the lawsuit were not related whatsoever to the merits of the claim,” he said. “Rather the reasons were related to justifying additional time expenditure knowing that the defendant had gained a better understanding of the liability for action and hence hopefully no one else would suffer the same fate.”

In his statement to the ABA Journal, Smith said the tort of false light invasion of privacy is a developing area of law in Missouri. The cause of action was recognized by the Missouri Court of Appeals in 2008, but the state supreme court has not been presented with a proper case for such a claim, he said.

In a previous case, the state supreme court has said that defamation, rather than false light invasion of privacy, is the proper cause of action for false statements that cause injury to reputation. The holding indicates that false light claims should be based on a false implication made by and through true statements, Smith said.

Martin told the ABA Journal he can’t comment on pending litigation. He said he had not received notice of the suit’s dismissal by late Friday morning, though Smith had dismissed a defamation cause of action earlier in the week.

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