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Gunns SLAPP's 20 Australian Environmentalists

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On December 14, 2004, Gunns - one of Australia's largest forestry companies - lodged a 216-page writ against 20 Tasmanian environmentalists and groups seeking A$6.3 million for actions it claims has damaged their business and reputation.

Two days later Gunns announced plans to build a bleached eucalypt Kraft pulp mill in northern Tasmania.

Australian Financial Review legal editor Marcus Priest noted that in "what some unionists are calling an unholy alliance," the giant Australian forestry company Gunns is "using industrial tort avenues employers have traditionally used against workers engaged in industrial action" against 20 environmentalists and environmental groups. Gunns' legal team comprises EMA Legal, a law firm that works only for employers, and two "well-known union barristers," Stephen Howells and Mark Irving, who defended the Forestry Division of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union in a case brought by environmentalists several years ago. [1]

The defendents

Those sued include the The Wilderness Society (totally unrelated to the U.S. Wilderness Society), Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown, the leader of the Tasmanian Greens Peg Putt, the Huon Valley Environment Centre, two independent film makers, a doctor and 13 other individuals. [2]

The preliminary legal hearings

In early July 2005, on the last working day before a court hearing on whether Gunns claims should be struck out, the company submitted a revised statement of claim which it had expanded to 360 pages. Lawyers for the defendents pointed out that in 118 instances the document stated that further details would be added to the claim at a later date.

In the course of the three-day hearing Justice Bongiorno complained that he found the revised document "totally incomprehensible" and, referring to early European Australian explorers described it as "a tortuous course. It would make Burke and Wills and other explorers like them quake in their boots." [3]

In mid-July Bongiorno told the company that unless it submitted a "radically altered" version of its claim within 28 days the case would be struck out. He described aspects of Gunns revised claim as "embarrassing" and said that "it would be a singularly unprofitable exercise to attempt to describe every defect in it which needs correction." Responding to the decision Gunns Exective Chairman, John Gay, optimistically told reporters that "suggestions have been made for some redrafting." [4]

In late October 2005 John Gay, the Managing Director and Executive Chairman of Gunns, told shareholders that the "decision by the Board of Directors to take legal action to protect the Company from actions by a number of environmentalists and environmental groups was taken following careful consideration." [5]

At the meeting, Leonie Pullinger, the wife of one of the defendants, told of the stress on her family as a result of the lawsuit. Her husband, Peter Pullinger, has campaigned for the protection of Australia's largest rainforest wilderness, the Takine, from logging. "I'm very sorry that she is in there, but they should have thought about what they did before they did it," Gay said. [6]

The third version of the statement of claim was lodged in August 2005, but in March 2006 the case was back in court with defendants again trying to have it struck out.[7]

Since last November Gunns share price has slumped from $A4.80 to $2.80. Activist shareholder and journalist with Crikey.com.au, Stephen Mayne, said the publicity from the SLAPP suit and doubts about the company's ability to build a pulp mill proposed for northern Tasmania have hit the share price. "He [Gay] said that adverse publicity is driving down the share price and a lot of that has come from the frivolous and unnecessary lawsuit," Mayne said. [8]

In August 2006, the Victorian Supreme Court threw out Gunns third revision of its statement of claim against the Gunns 20. Gunn's is seeking $6.9 million in damages against a network of 20 individuals and environmental groups. Following the ruling, Gay told the ABC that the company would press on. "We will take individual action where there is a case of commercial damage to the company," Gay said. "We will never take ... anyone to court that is purely a pure demonstrator or has a different view of the company." [9]

In December 2006, Gunns lodged a fourth statement of claim dropping all the claims in relation to the corporate lobbying and the "campaign against Gunns", and releasing four defendants from the case, including Greens MPs Senator Bob Brown and Peg Putt. Over the next 3 years a series of preliminary hearings, settlement offers, court battles over discovery of documents, and mediation saw the case discontinued against a number of defendants. Most significantly, after failing to obtain orders to access documents from The Wilderness Society, in April 2009 Gunns agreed to drop the case against the environmental group and a number of its officers, paying them net $325,000 in costs. The case was scheduled to go to trial against the last 4 defendants in January 2010, but settled on the eve of the case with Gunns paying a further $155,088 to the defendants.[10]

Gunns legal team

Websites

The Official Gunns 20 website

Other Gunns 20 websites

Other SourceWatch resources

External links