Decision expected today in libel suit

March 02, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Carroll County Circuit Court Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. is expected to hand down a decision today in the $581,600 slander and libel lawsuit two Marston farmers have brought against the Humane Society of Carroll County.

In closing arguments yesterday, Margaret Mead, attorney for the farmers, said Humane Society Director Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff and animal control officer David R. Stair made statements to the press that ruined her clients' reputations and business after a raid at their farm on April 11, 1990, to investigate charges of animal cruelty.

August Frederick "Fred" Schisler and his brother, Carroll Lynn Schisler Sr., buy malnourished animals to fatten for resale. They are seeking $120,000 in damages from Ms. Ratliff, $171,600 from Mr. Stair and $290,000 from the Humane Society.

"My clients are in the livestock trade business," Ms. Mead said. "In that business, you can't turn on and turn off how you treat those animals. They must be treated carefully."

She also said Ms. Ratliff and Mr. Stair should not have relied on statements from retired veterinarian Arthur Peck that food on the farm was inadequate, particularly since his testimony yesterday differed from Mr. Stair's. Dr. Peck, who specialized in livestock, had accompanied the Humane Society on the raid.

"Dr. Peck said he doesn't see proper food and water for the animals," Ms. Mead said. "But Mr. Stair said he saw top-quality hay. There was a lack of effective truthful communication between these three people. There was a total disregard for the truth."

Michelle Ostrander, attorney for Ms. Ratliff and Mr. Stair, replied that Ms. Mead had not proved the statements were made maliciously or with a reckless disregard for the truth.

"They relied on their senses and the observations by a veterinary professional at the time," she said. "In the absence of proof, the plaintiff's attorney has not made her case."

Ms. Ostrander also said that, while the hay was present, it was in the second floor of the barn and inaccessible to the animals.

"A can of food does not help a person if he does not have a can opener," she said.

William R. MacDonald, attorney for the Humane Society, said in his closing arguments that his client shouldn't be a party to the suit because it is a charitable organization as defined by the Internal Revenue Service.

State law says charitable organizations are protected from civil suits, he said.

Ms. Mead, however, said the law specifically excludes law enforcement and other government agencies. The Humane Society, which receives 90 percent of its budget from Carroll County government, is under contract with the county to enforce its animal control laws, she said.

Testimony concluded yesterday, ending five days of conflicting witness statements about what happened on the farm during the raid and subsequent visits by Mr. Stair.

In addition to his testimony about the feed, Dr. Peck -- who testified as an expert -- said he told Ms. Ratliff and Mr. Stair after the Schisler raid that "in my 35 years of practice I never saw anything quite that deplorable. I thought it was inhumane."

He said turkey buzzards are present in Carroll County, but the birds are incapable of killing live animals. The Schislers had testified that they kept carcasses in a field to discourage the buzzards from attacking newborn animals.

"Turkey buzzards have a weak beak and no talons, so they are not able to eat anything that is not dead," Dr. Peck said. "There is no way they can pick up and carry away any animal, alive or dead.

"I don't know about [a pile of carcasses] being able to divert them. It is more liable to draw them to the pile."

A few short-tailed black buzzards, which do have talons and can attack, have been sighted in Carroll County, but they are "in the minority," he said.

Three animals euthanized during the raid -- a heifer, a steer and a pig -- were destroyed on his advice, Dr. Peck said. The Schisler brothers had testified that Mr. Stair ordered the animals put down.

The steer -- a pet owned by Carroll Schisler's son, Leonard "Pee Wee" Schisler -- could not raise its head and was suffering from a type of pneumonia when he examined it during the raid, Dr. Peck said.

He also said Leonard was not on the scene until after the animal had been destroyed.

"As we were leaving the area, a young boy came rushing in and was very upset," Dr. Peck said.

The Schislers had testified that Leonard, now 14, tearfully watched the death of his pet. They also said the blind animal was not terminally ill but had become upset and fainted during the commotion of the raid.

However, Dr. Peck testified that had never heard of an animal fainting, nor could blindness cause an animal to pass out.

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