Idaho jury awards contractor in civil suit Activist members to pay in protest-related damages

November 08, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BOISE, Idaho -- A state court jury has ordered 12 members of the environmental group Earth First! to pay $1.15 million in damages to a contractor for damaged equipment and work delays as the result of protests in the virgin forests of northern Idaho.

The jury of eight women and four men awarded the plaintiff, Highland Enterprises of Grangeville, Idaho, about $150,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages in the civil case.

The verdict was reached last week in a district court in Grangeville, about 250 miles north of Boise, in Idaho County.

The defendants will be required to share the cost of the punitive damages by paying $83,333 each, court officials said, while compensatory damages were spread among the defendants in different amounts.

Bernard Zahela, a Boise lawyer who represented 11 of the 12 defendants, said he would file a motion for a new trial because the Idaho County jury was too sympathetic to the contractor. Timber is one of the dominant industries in the densely forested county.

Zahela also contends that the plaintiff did not present enough evidence to link the defendants with any of the damage to the equipment.

"There was an absolute failure to connect the two," he said. "The rest was guilt by association."

Leslie Hemstreet, 31, co-editor of The Earth First! Journal in Eugene, Ore., said of the decision: "The magnitude is so huge I can't even conceive of it. But you can't squeeze blood out of a bee."

Most of the defendants do not have jobs and will have trouble making any payments, Hemstreet said.

Don Blewett, owner of Highland Enterprises, said he expected to see some payment over time because the jury's award -- if upheld -- would remain in effect for the defendants' lifetimes.

"If their Great-aunt Matilda buys a Volkswagen van and she dies and gives it to one of them, that baby's mine," Blewett said.

Highland Enterprises filed the lawsuit in late 1993 after three pieces of heavy equipment sustained total damages put at $20,000 by the company. Blewett sought $197,000 from each defendant for equipment damage and a monthlong delay caused by protests.

He also sought $1 million each in punitive damages.

Karen Pickett, 46, of Canyon, Calif., a defendant in the case and a longtime Earth First! organizer, said the lawsuit was not about collecting money.

"There's no doubt that this sort of thing has a chilling effect," Pickett said. "The idea is to use the lawsuit to intimidate and discourage people from protesting."

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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