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Lawyers: Lawsuit against WTI will continue

EAST LIVERPOOL -- A lawsuit begun by 32 area property owners against Von Roll Waste Technologies Industries in 1997 will apparently continue forward, despite a move by Von Roll WTI Friday to suspend their counterclaims against the plaintiffs.

According to a release Sunday, the attorneys representing the property owners claim that Von Roll WTI's suspension of the counterclaims was in response to court orders to turn over documents and provide corporate testimony relating to its counterclaims.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs maintained in the release that Von Roll WTI's counterclaims lawsuit was a "vicious and unfounded Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation."

In its own release Friday, Von Roll WTI Vice President and General Manager Fred Sigg said the company was suspending the counterclaims as a "gesture of good faith" intended to "promote negotiation over litigation."

The property owners had filed the suit in January 1997, alleging that operation of the hazardous waste incinerator lowered their property values. Von Roll WTI had countersued the plaintiffs, alleging abuse of process, defamation, frivolous conduct and related matters.

In Sunday's release, the attorneys questioned the timing of Von Roll WTI's suspension.

The attorneys said that a motion had been filed March 10 asking Columbiana County Common Pleas Court to consider dismissing the incinerator's counterclaims--what the attorneys termed the SLAPP suit--because of what they said was the company's "contumacious" refusal to provide documents and testimony to support it. Such requests had been made for years without response from Von Roll WTI, the attorneys said.

Von Roll WTI had been ordered to respond by April 4 to another motion which had requested a summary judgment against the company on the defamation matter, and had also been ordered to respond by mid-April to the matter of documents and testimony, the attorneys said.

The court had recently narrowed Von Roll WTI's frivolous litigation claim, and dismissed a vexatious litigation claim, the attorneys added.

"It is too late to call WTI's acts good faith after three years of attempting to intimidate and harass these citizens for the sole reason that they spoke out against the environmental threat to their community," said attorney Michael D. Hausfeld, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Hausfeld, Milstein, Hausfeld and Toll, who is representing two of the plaintiffs, Terri Swearingen and Alonzo Spencer. Hausfeld said companies like Von Roll WTI ought to put their "extensive resources" into "protecting the community from environmental harm," rather than "suing citizens who speak the truth."

"The SLAPP by WTI was part of a pattern by environmental offenders to chill free speech and the right to petition government," Hausfeld concluded.

In Von Roll WTI's Friday release, Sigg said some of the plaintiffs were working with Greenpeace to pursue a political agenda of attempting to embarrass Vice President Al Gore by keeping a "needlessly expensive lawsuit afloat." The plaintiffs had also turned down an offer last year to sit down and possibly negotiate an out-of-court settlement, Sigg added, which he called a "generous offer".

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