Ontario mom faces $2M libel suit for website about problems in neighbourhood
By MIKE OLIVEIRA
(CP) - A stay-at-home mother of three who created a website to alert the government about allegedly dangerous environmental problems in her southwestern Ontario neighbourhood is facing a $2 million libel suit by one of the developers she reported on.
Louisette Lanteigne of Waterloo, Ont., said she grew sick of what she saw during construction in her new subdivision and what appeared to be questionable building practices and labour-code violations.
She said she was constantly keeping her kids and their friends out of trouble, as they would keep running into hazards around their neighbourhood. She petitioned city council and got help but new problems would appear as quickly as the old ones got fixed, she said.
“They call me an environmental activist, but I see myself as more of a mom who’s just trying to be heard,” said the 36-year-old mother of three girls aged 21 months, nine and 12.
“My kids were at risk and nobody helped me, and I’m worried about other kids too, that’s the bottom line,” she said in a telephone interview, breaking into tears. “Nobody protected me and now I’m getting sued.”
She launched her website in April to document her complaints and as a means for the province’s Environment and Labour ministries to view the evidence she collected. She made about a dozen postings with photos and stories of sightings around her area.
Her efforts led to letters and kudos from various government officials for reporting alleged violations. Then-environment minister Leona Dombrowsky wrote her to say, “Your advocacy on behalf of your neighbourhood is commendable and I encourage you to contact the ministry . . .to report any further incidents.”
Environment Ministry spokesman John Steele said work by people like Lanteigne is of great value because there aren’t enough ministry workers available to spot every infraction.
“Obviously we can’t have staff everywhere all the time, so we depend on the public out there as surrogate eyes and ears for the ministry,” Steele said. “They’re an important part of the ministry’s work.”
But not everyone was happy with her reports.
On Sept. 16, Lanteigne received news that she was being sued for libel by developer Activa Holdings Inc., one of the largest developers in the region.
The statement of claim said “the malicious, high-handed and arrogant conduct of the Defendant warrants an award of punitive or exemplary damages to ensure that the Defendant is appropriately punished for her conduct and deterred from such conduct in the future.”
The company sought $2 million and an order to have the allegedly libellous material taken offline.
“The website contains numerous untrue statements and defamatory statements about Activa,” said the company’s lawyer Greg Murdoch.
“Activa is in this unfortunate position where it has to proceed with this lawsuit.”
The statement of claim outlines stories by Lanteigne involving diesel oil spills on subdivision sites, unlocked oil tanks, roofers working without proper safety equipment and possible contamination of soil and water.
Activa claims the website has caused damage to its reputation and launched the lawsuit only after Lanteigne refused to apologize and take down the site.
The statement of claim states Lanteigne acted “in bad faith with knowledge that (her words) were false, or with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.” It states that the articles were “deliberately written in a tone of language intended to discredit and harm the reputation of the Plaintiff.”
Lanteigne said she stands by everything she wrote and isn’t backing down.
“I learned the only way they could get me to remove the site was with an injunction, and an injunction would mean they would have to bring this information in front of a judge,” Lanteigne said.
“I thought, ‘That’s excellent,’ because I need a judge to see what’s going on here.”
Some U.S. states have seen so many libel or defamation lawsuits that legislation has been created to help people take on cases against more powerful opponents.
The legislation is typically called anti-SLAPP, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
The laws reduce the risk of fighting lawsuits because if the plaintiff loses, they are responsible for all the legal fees. In Lanteigne’s case, she will have to pay her lawyer regardless of the outcome.
“Typically with David-Goliath-type situations where a citizen is faced with large legal costs and aggressive litigious companies, it takes a lot of courage to persevere,” said Rick Smith, executive director for advocacy organization Environmental Defence Canada.
While Lanteigne may not have $2 million to pay Activa, she does have a lot to lose and could be forced into bankruptcy.
Murdoch said Activa realizes it’s risking negative PR but the company thinks the lawsuit is the only way to defend its reputation.
“Ultimately, they’re confident it will be resolved in their favour,” Murdoch said. “They’re confident the right public perception will come about.”