A judge has ruled that a $3 million defamation lawsuit was filed by the company that planned to dredge Utah Lake to prevent a Utah scientist from engaging in a public debate about the controversial project .
After a two-day hearing that ended Wednesday, 3rd Circuit Judge Laura Scott dismissed Lake Restorations Solutions’ (LRS) lawsuit against Brigham Young University ecology professor Ben Abbott, concluding that the negative statements by the scientist about the company are factually founded.
Since the project’s unveiling five years ago, Abbott has been a leading critic of the proposal to build up to 20,000 acres of artificial islands, which he and others say are unscientific and could further deteriorate the lake.
The largest freshwater lake in all of Utah, Utah Lake has been inundated by invasive species and algal blooms thanks to centuries of dumping and neglect. LRS claims its project would reverse the lake’s environmental problems and provide numerous other benefits, such as improved and safer navigation, miles of new shorelines open to the public, and increased water storage.
In a lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City a year ago, the company alleged that Abbott’s criticisms — posted on its website, written in letters to various officials, and presented at public meetings — morphed into deliberate falsehoods designed to sway the public against the project to bring up.
Ultimately, the Utah Department of Natural Resources rejected LRS’s proposal, leading to a lawsuit against the state.
Abbott’s most damaging allegations were claims that LRS had no PhDs on its team and that its funding came from “shady” foreign sources in Dubai, according to LRS attorney David Jordan. Other defamatory statements included statements about the portion of the lake bed that the project would privatize and the company’s public investment offerings filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
“If you [Abbott] Say that in order to have a safe and legitimate process, you need to assemble a team of researchers, engineers and legal experts. And then to say that such people are not associated with this project is defamatory. Why? Because it is designed to damage the organization’s reputation,” argued Jordan.
However, Scott dismissed the LRS defamation lawsuit on legal grounds, citing the factual basis for Abbott’s allegedly defamatory statements.
“The statements were either essentially true, although there may have been minor inaccuracies, or the gist or substance of the statements was true,” Scott said. “Even if these statements were false, they could not support any claim of defamation.”
She also dismissed LRS’ related claims that Abbott’s statements cast the company “in the wrong light” and disrupted its business agreements.
The judge then turned to Abbot’s counterclaim, alleging that LRS’s defamation case was brought in bad faith to silence him.
Abbott’s attorney Whitney Krogue asked the judge to rule that the company’s lawsuit acted as an improper strategic action against public participation or SLAPP and was viewed as an abuse of the justice system aimed at preventing debate on matters of public interest.
“This is also reflected in the communication between LRS and its consultants. As Professor Abbott’s opposition to the project gained ground, they planned to search his statements and find anything they could claim to be false and sue Professor Abbott over those statements to intimidate him into silence,” he said Krogue. “Our First Amendment protection means you cannot go out and sue someone who opposes you on a matter of public interest and who is standing before the public and government bodies, and do so on the basis of such flimsy facts and evidence as LRS has attempted to provide here.”
She argued that many of Abbott’s offensive statements were based on LRS’s own accounts.
“There are extensive publicly available records of LRS officials saying they had foreign funds from Dubai, and yet LRS filed this lawsuit against Professor Abbott, suing him for millions of dollars for repeating the same statement,” argued you.
Jordan, however, objected to Abbott calling the company’s funding sources “shady,” which in this context suggests corruption.
“It is highly insulting to suggest that you have colluded with corrupt individuals funding your project,” he said.
But Judge Scott was undeterred.
“‘Shady’ is not a statement capable of making a determination of truth or falsity. It’s an opinion,” she told Jordan. “Under the law it is clear that ‘shady’ is an opinion and that it is linked to foreign financing from Dubai, which appears to be an essentially true statement that LRS was at one point seeking foreign financing.”
She acknowledged that Abbott’s use of the word “shady” gave her some pause, but said it was a no-brainer to establish that the rest of his statements were fine.
“I don’t think any of the other statements have remotely any defamatory meaning,” she added. “We can respectfully disagree. I recognize that an appeals court will likely consider this.”
Scott noted that many of the statements for which Abbott was sued did not even tarnish LRS’s reputation.
“Whether 15% of the lake is covered by islands, or 12%, or 10%. I don’t know how that’s supposed to be defamatory,” she said. “This statement regarding the SEC filing. LRS did not go public, but made an offer. It offered $15 million worth of private securities and sold $200,000. I don’t see how this misunderstanding or misrepresentation of offering a private security versus the IPO can sustain any defamatory meaning.”
While the judge found that the LRS lawsuit lacked legal basis, Scott said Abbott’s attorneys failed to meet the “clear and compelling” legal standard to award damages under Utah’s anti-SLAPP statutes. This aspect of Abbott’s dispute with LRS has factual issues that can only be resolved by a jury, she ruled.