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Judge tells attorneys to pay costs

She had warned the attorneys last year that their case had no claim under federal racketeering laws.

By J. NEALY-BROWN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2002


She had warned the attorneys last year that their case had no claim under federal racketeering laws.

TAMPA -- A federal judge not only has dismissed a lawsuit against hog producer Smithfield Foods Inc. but has ordered the attorneys who filed it to pay sanctions.

Chief Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich of the U.S. District Court in Tampa wrote in her ruling last week that she had warned the environmental activists' attorneys, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., after they filed their case last year that they had no claim under federal racketeering laws. After that claim was dismissed, the attorneys filed a second complaint "against the court's advice," the judge said.

The lawsuit "failed to state anything at all, except conclusory allegations that have no support," she wrote. No "reasonable attorney" could have believed that the second complaint had any "reasonable chance of success," Kovachevich added.

The attorneys, not the plaintiffs, will have to pay the fees and costs. The amount has not yet been decided, a Smithfield spokesman said.

Such sanctions are unusual, said Tampa attorney Jonathan Alpert.

"Basically when a judge tells you that you can't do it, generally speaking, you shouldn't do it," he said. "If a judge cautions a lawyer not to plead something or if the court does not think that it can't be property pled, that should generally be taken very seriously by the lawyers."

In the lawsuit, environmentalists accused the Virginia company of driving competing small farmers out of business by deliberately fouling water, air and soil. Smithfield, they said, misrepresented the damage that its business caused to their land.

"This was a case where overzealous lawyers got carried away and filed a suit that had no basis," said Richard J.M. Poulson, Smithfield Foods' executive vice president and senior adviser to the chairman.

The lawyers that sued the meat producer were assembled by New Yorker Kennedy, son of the late Democratic senator and attorney general. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is president of an environmental group called Waterkeeper Alliance, and he also has filed lawsuits against Smithfield in North Carolina. One lawsuit has been dismissed and the other is pending, said Charles F. Speer of Kansas an attorney for the plaintiffs.

They are not singling out Smithfield, but the entire industry, he said. The group filed a lawsuit in Tampa because Smithfield has locations in the area. Its Florida holdings include Lykes Meat Group Inc.

"We knew this was going to be a long, hard fight when we embarked on the journey," Speer said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We set up our group with that possibility in mind."

Speer said an appeal is being considered.

-- J. Nealy-Brown can be reached at nealy@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8846.

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