Judge dismisses Northwest Organics defamation suit

A B.C. Supreme Court Judge has dismissed Northwest Organics and Northwest Group Properties’ defamation lawsuit against Lytton residents Ed Roest, Sheila  Maguire, Meghan Fandrich, Timshell Jackson and the Botanie Valley Advisory Committee, and also ordered Northwest to pay the defendants’ court costs.

In her dismissal of Northwest’s lawsuit, Madame Justice Nitya Iyer ruled that Northwest did not prove its allegations against the defendants.

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She said some of the allegations were not properly pleaded because they were raised only in closing submissions and not during the trial. She noted that Northwest was required to specify the dates of publication of alleged defamatory statements, the defamatory words published and the identity of the recipients but failed to do so. Justice Iyer ruled that other clams were not supported by the evidence.

Northwest won its defamation lawsuit against another defendant, Abe Kingston, in a February 2017 default judgment. He represented himself in court but did not attend most of the proceedings and took no steps to defend against the claim. In Iyer’s ruling, released May 28, Kingston was ordered to pay $2,000 in damages, plus interest, and $500 in costs to the company.

Northwest had been seeking general damages of at least $400,000 from all the defendants, plus special and punitive damages against Kingston. Justice Iyer dismissed those claims. 

Northwest’s claims of defamation arose out of its interactions with the

defendants during the extensive formal and informal community consultation

process associated with construction of its composting facility in the Botanie Valley north of Lytton.  

The judge found that Northwest owner Ralph McRae and the defendants had a rocky relationship “from the outset.

“Mr. McRae and other representatives of Northwest, and the defendants and their associates, rubbed each other the wrong way. Mr. McRae was a successful Vancouver-

based entrepreneur who was passionate about his vision of contributing to the community

by coupling an industrial composting facility with an organic farm. He believed that he would be helping a depressed local economy through what he considered to be a family legacy project. Operating a profit-based industrial facility was an integral part of his vision,” she wrote in her 94-page judgment.

“The defendants saw Mr. McRae very differently. They did not warm to his style of presentation or his conviction that he knew what was best for their community. They were distrustful of a wealthy urban businessman and did not consider for-profit commercial composting to be consistent with the ethos of their rural community. They did not want to become a dumping ground for Vancouver’s waste.”

She described all of the defendants and McRae as “strong-minded and determined. Once they formed an opinion of each other, they were not willing to back down…Neither had any tolerance or patience for the other. As a result, disagreement quickly developed into open animosity, and each side used all of the tools at their disposal to prevail over the other.” 

Justice Iyer said she heard a “great deal of evidence” about the odour associated with Northwest’s composting facility.

“For the most part, Northwest’s witnesses denied that the facility had an ongoing odour problem, while witnesses for the defendants said that it did.”

She described Ralph McRae as the “most vociferous” in denying that the facility caused any unpleasant odours. McRae maintained that the vast majority of odour complaints were orchestrated by Maguire and Roest, whom he described as vicious liars. He also accused Maguire and Roest of  “staging odours” on their property so that ministry inspectors would wrongly attribute them to the facility.

The judge wrote, “I do not accept Mr. McRae’s evidence regarding the odours

associated with the Facility, as it was inextricably intertwined with his theories about

Mr. Roest and Ms. Maguire’s machinations against him. Even without considering

Mr. Roest’s or Ms. Maguire’s testimony about odours at all, there is ample evidence that the Facility caused some unpleasant odours.”

Justice Iyer also ruled that “words associating a compost facility with bad odours, even in graphic or derogatory language, are not defamatory of a compost facility. This is because, in the eyes of a reasonable person, compost facilities produce unpleasant odours.”

The judge also ruled that Northwest did not prove its case that it was defamed by the flyers, reports, posters, stickers and signs distributed or posted in the community.

She said a “reasonable, thoughtful and informed person” would not regard the company  with “feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule or fear” because of the publication of those comments.

“To put it succinctly, in the public debate about the Facility, Northwest gave as good as it got. The plaintiffs (Northwest) were full participants in a matter that was of enormous interest to residents of the local community.”

Justice Iyer said Northwest’s own conduct was relevant to determining whether defamation occurred.

“One cannot sling mud and then complain to the courts about being hit by mud,” she wrote.

Twenty witnesses testified at the trial, which began Aug. 28, 2017 in Vancouver, continued the rest of that month and throughout September and ended on Dec. 6, 2017. 

 

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