Marston farmers awarded $6,202

March 04, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. yesterday awarded two Marston farmers $6,202 in their libel and slander lawsuit against the Humane Society of Carroll County.

"The judge made a very good decision," said Margaret Mead, attorney for August Frederick "Fred" Schisler and his brother, Carroll Lynn Schisler Sr.

The Schislers had sought $581,600 in damages from the society and two of its employees, Director Carolyn "Nicky" Ratliff and Animal Control Officer David R. Stair, for statements to the press after an April 11, 1990, raid during an animal cruelty investigation.

Those statements ruined their reputations and caused them to lose business, the Schislers said. The family, which purchases malnourished animals and fattens them for resale, also said Mr. Stair had maliciously harassed and destroyed several of their animals.

After Judge Burns' decision, Carroll Schisler said, "We didn't want the money. We just wanted to show that those people were wrong."

Of the 18 counts in the original civil suit, Judge Burns decided five counts in favor of the Schislers and eight in favor of the defendants, and he declined to enter a judgment on one of them. The other four counts -- alleging assault against two sheriff's deputies who had arrested Carroll Schisler during the raid -- were dismissed before trial.

Before issuing his decision, Judge Burns rejected an argument by defense attorney William R. MacDonald that the society should be exempt from suit because it is a charitable organization. The judge ruled that the society technically is a county agency because it receives most of its money from Carroll County and that its bylaws do not mention charitable immunity.

"I am finding that the Carroll County Humane Society is not entitled to charitable immunity, a defense which is in disfavor in most states of the United States," Judge Burns said.

The judge, referring to an article in The Evening Sun on April 13, 1990, decided that Ms. Ratliff had slandered the Schislers by saying there was no fresh food for the animals on their farm, that they didn't take care of their animals and that hay found there was several years old. Judge Burns awarded the Schislers $4,000 of the $20,000 they sought in compensatory damages from Ms. Ratliff and $1 of the $100,000 they requested in punitive damages. He also awarded them $2,000 of the $20,000 they sought from the Humane Society as Ms. Ratliff's employer.

"Her statements that they did not care for their animals were reckless and untrue, and with proper examination and investigation, those statements should not have been made," Judge Burns ruled. "There has been plenty of testimony by credible witnesses that their [the Schislers'] reputation has been injured."

Although conflicting testimony had been presented about how a sow may have been caused to kill some of her piglets, Judge Burns said the Schislers' story was more credible. He awarded the Schislers $200 in compensatory damages and $1 in punitive damages from Mr. Stair.

The Schislers had said Mr. Stair poked the sow with his clipboard, causing her to jump and step on her newborn piglets. Mr. Stair testified that he nudged the animal so he could see if she had water and that she wasn't near her pigs.

Judge Burns decided that Mr. Stair was not negligent or responsible for the deaths of two steers on the farm. Both had been examined by Dr. Arthur Peck, a retired Westminster veterinarian who specializes in livestock and who decided the animals should be euthanized.

Judge Burns ruled that he couldn't find any evidence that Mr. Stair had made slanderous statements similar to Ms. Ratliff's about the Schislers.

After the decision, Ms. Ratliff declined to comment. Michelle Ostrander, the attorney for Ms. Ratliff and Mr. Stair, said she was unsure whether they will file an appeal.

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