Mo. Supreme Court rejects defamation suit by congressman's mother

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - The Missouri Supreme Court says a woman running a dog kennel can't sue dog advocacy groups for defamation after they said she ran one of the worst puppy mills in the state.

The court on Tuesday unanimously upheld a circuit court decision that dismissed a defamation lawsuit against dog advocacy groups that was filed by dog kennel owner Mary Ann Smith of Salem. Smith is the mother of U.S. Rep. Jason Smith of Rolla, who represents the Eighth Congressional District in southeast and south central Missouri.

Mary Ann Smith sued the Humane Society of the United States and Missourians for the Protection of Dogs over their report issued in 2010 that called her kennel one of the "worst puppy mills in Missouri." The report was issued as the groups advocated for an issue on the ballot in November 2010 that was known as Proposition B, the Canine Mill Cruelty Prevention Act. The measure would have placed caps on breeding dog ownership and set parameters for acceptable dog care.

Here's what the two groups wrote about Smith's Kennel, as quoted in the Supreme Court opinion:

"Smith’s Kennel has a history of repeat USDA violation stretching back more than a decade, including citations for unsanitary conditions; dogs exposed to below-freezing temperatures or excessive heat without adequate shelter from the weather; dogs without enough cage space to turn and move around freely; pest and rodent infestations; injured and bleeding dogs, dogs with loose, bloody stools who had not been treated by a vet, and much more.

"The entry also included direct quotations from the inspection reports. One or more dogs in her kennel had been reported as having cherry eye, interdigital cysts, extremely long toenails, bloody feces, green matter in their eyes, and hair loss. It was further
reported that her outdoor facilities had little bedding for the dogs even during freezing temperatures."

After voters passed Proposition B, the Missouri Legislature passed legislation to repeal it before it went into effect in November 2011. One legislator who sponsored a repeal bill was Rep. Jason Smith, who in 2011 was the Missouri House majority party whip. (Smith became a congressman in 2013 when he won a special election for a vacant seat.)

As the Legislature considered the repeal bills, the two dog advocacy groups issued a new report and news release in the spring of 2011. They urged people to contact their legislators to ask them not to vote to repeal Proposition B.

“Most of the worst puppy mills in Missouri are still licensed . . . indicating the ongoing need for the protections that Proposition B,
The Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act, will provide,” the groups said, as they again called out Smith's Kennel and 24 others in the state for being cruel to dogs that they bred and raised.

"The individual entry for Ms. Smith’s kennel was titled 'Chronically Problematic Puppy Mill Linked to MO Lawmaker Currently Attacking Prop B.' It listed her USDA and MDA licenses as active 'despite ongoing repeat violations.' The entry summarized the previous violations at her kennel, such as 'unsanitary conditions; dogs exposed to below-freezing temperatures or excessive heat without adequate shelter from the weather; dogs without enough cage space to turn and move around freely; pest and rodent infestations; injured and bleeding dogs, dogs with loose, bloody stools who had not been treated by a vet, and much more,' according to the Supreme Court opinion. "The updated report also included a photograph of a dog that was reported to have congenital health problems. It also noted her son 'was once listed in state records as a co-owner of her kennel and has been an outspoken opponent of Proposition B.'

The Missouri Legislature passed a measure in the spring of 2011 that removed the dog ownership cap in Proposition B and softened its other requirements.

Mary Ann Smith Smith sued HSUS and Missourians for the Protection of Dogs. She accused them of defaming her, portraying her in a false light. She also accused the groups of negligence because, she said, some of their statements were “false, scandalous, and defamatory” and “falsely impl[ied] that there [were] other, undisclosed objective facts known to the [d]efendants which support[ed] the false statements made by defendants."

Excerpt from the Supreme Court opinion on Smith's lawsuit:

Count I further alleged defendants were negligent in publishing the statements because they failed “to conduct a full and complete investigation of:
(1) “[her] kennel;”
(2) “the other dirty dozen dog kennels reference[d] in [the] report;” and (3) “‘the hundreds of high-volume commercial breeders in Missouri’ referenced in [the] report.” Ms. Smith alleged these statements damaged her reputation by depriving her dog kennel of “valuable business associations in the dog raising and selling business” and causing her “to suffer humiliation, embarrassment, hurt, mental anguish, pain and suffering and has and will in the future be deprived of public confidence and social and business associations.”

Count II, defamation – false statements, contained the same allegation that the above statements were “false, scandalous, and defamatory” and “falsely impl[ied] that there [were] other, undisclosed objective facts known to [d]efendants which support[ed] the false statements made by defendants.” In this count, however, Ms. Smith alleged defendants published the alleged defamatory statements “with knowledge that such statements were false or with reckless disregard for whether such statements were true or false at a time when the [d]efendants had doubts as to whether such statements were true.”

Because Ms. Smith alleged the defendants’ actions were done “knowingly, intentionally, [and] in conscious disregard for and in reckless indifference to [her] interests and welfare,” she requested punitive damages.

In Count III, invasion of privacy – false light, she alleged the above statements misrepresented Ms. Smith and her kennel with reckless disregard for the truth and placed her in a false light by falsely implying:
1) her kennel was a “puppy mill” and “was as bad as and engaged in the same conduct as the other kennels listed in the report” that
had more severe state or federal animal welfare violations;
2) she “committed ‘atrocious violations of basic humane care standards for the dogs in her care;’”
3) she was a cruel and inhumane person;
4) her dogs “developed interdigital cysts from being ‘forced to stand continually on wire flooring;”
5) she and her kennel “were singled out from the hundreds of high volume commercial breeders in Missouri for repeatedly depriving dogs of the basics of human care, according to state and/or federal state inspection reports for each dealer;”
6) her kennel was “among the worst of the worst and repeatedly deprived dogs of the basics of humane care;”
7) her “dogs received little to no medical care, lived in squalid conditions with no exercise, socialization, or human interaction, and are confined inside cramped wire cages for life[,] . . . crammed into small cramped cages, denied veterinary care, exposed to the extremes of heat and cold, and given no exercise or human affection;”
8) her kennel’s “violations were ‘horrific,’” and that the state and federal inspections reports of [her] and her kennel ‘reveal[ed] shocking abuses and mistreatment of dogs;” and
9) regarding the updated report, implied that her kennel “continued to have violations similar to those in the original [report].”

Ms. Smith further alleged these statements placed her in a false light because they were made “in public without any acknowledgment of explanatory facts and circumstances which, when added to the facts recited in the reports and news releases, would naturally tend to create a less objectionable public opinion of [her] and her kennel.”

End of opinion excerpt

The Supreme Court said in its opinion that the advocacy groups' statements were hyperbolic and not meant to be taken literally.

"Because these statements were subjective assessments not provable as false and did not imply any objective facts provable as false, these statements are not actionable as defamation as a matter of law. Moreover, statements that her kennel had “atrocious,” “unconscionable,” “major,” and “flagrant” violations
and statements that her kennel was a “puppy mill” are not and do not
imply objective facts that are provable as false and, instead,
are imprecisely used as “lusty, imaginative expression[s] of contempt” that cannot “reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts[.]”