Some people in Columbia, Missouri, were unhappy to see a grand, old house denuded of its grand, old trees, and so they made a bit of a fuss about it.
“Can you do a story about the owner who cut down all the old trees and created a wasteland in his front yard?” Sarah Grim asked. “I cannot drive on Stewart now, as it is too awful to see.”
“He didn’t even cut them; he gouged and mutilated them,” said Ruthie Moccia, who sent us the picture above. What’s left of the trees, she said, “stands there mocking us. It’s the most atrocious destructive thing I have ever seen.”
Discussions have sprouted across Facebook, too. Dory Colbert borrowed from Joni Mitchell’s ode to paved paradise, Big Yellow Taxi: “They took all the trees, Put ’em in a tree museum.”
I’ve driven by the Old Southwest estate home that until recently belonged to the Harl family. I agree: it looks like a brontosaurus had lunch in the front yard, which is wide and prominent from the street.
Yet, the conclusion was that property rights allow a homeowner to do as he sees fit, and so it goes. The home was owned by a fellow named Aaron Smith. Smith, as it happened, was a lawyer. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
It should be clear to anyone familiar with Aaron.W. Smith‘s lawsuit demanding damages in excess of $25,000 be paid by Mike Martin, publisher of the Columbia Heartbeat online newspaper for an article Martin published indicating neighborhood displeasure regarding tree removal on Smith’s property is frivolous at best, but in reality a blatant abuse of our legal system. Of course, I don’t think that. I’m afraid A.W. Smith will sue me.
In the comments to the original post, Smith explained that the trees were old, dying and dangerous, and that they were taken down for safety. He went on to say that he too was saddened to see the old trees go, but he planned on replanting “beautiful new trees” and asked his neighbors to withhold judgment until he had the opportunity to do so.
It was a good response.
Suing for false light, on the other hand, was a bad response. A monumentally bad response.
No one wants to be known in their community as an “uncaring tree mutilator,” but the best method of persuading your neighbors not to despise you isn’t to sue a hyperlocal website and the neighbors who didn’t care for your denuding the property.
To be clear, I’m not alleging that A.W. Smith is using his unfettered access to the legal system to bully Mike Martin and violate his right to freedom of speech and our right freedom of the press. I’m afraid A.W. Smith would sue me if I said something like that.
See how that works?
That is, of course, exactly what he’s alleging, and rightfully so. This is as flagrant a SLAPP suit as there can be, but more importantly, this is how a lawyer makes as many enemies as possible.
Aaron Smith’s response to the original post was a bit defensive, but generally offered a sound explanation for his actions. The complaint was well-drafted, suggesting he’s not a bad lawyer. But his decision to sue is as monumentally tone-deaf and poor as can be.
Yes, we get it that you’re a lawyer and you can start a lawsuit whenever you want. How fabulous for you to have this heady weapon at hand, to silence your critics and salve your butthurt. But for crying out loud, did you think this was going to help your reputation in the community? You just made yourself the biggest douche in Columbia, and maybe a whole lot more.
Lawyers: just because you can is not a good reason to sue your neighbors. And when people don’t like what you did, they aren’t going to like it any more because you sued them for saying so.
Aaron, a bit of unsolicited advice. Withdraw your suit immediately, with prejudice. Send Michael Martin, Sarah Grim and Ruthie Moccia a handwritten note apologizing for your exercise of gross indiscretion. Make a donation to the Columbia Heart Beat. Not some niggardly contribution, but one that will make a difference. I would think $10,000 would be about right.
And then, promise to throw a block party for the neighborhood when you get your trees planted to show your good faith, the sincerity of your words and your dedication to the aesthetic quality of your property and neighborhood. Show the people around you that your foray into douchedom was a momentary lapse in sanity, and that you are truly sorry that you used your hammer to pound their nail.
And while this shouldn’t need saying, don’t sue anyone if they muss up your new irrigation system. Just don’t do it. Don’t make all lawyers look bad.