Aaron Smith: Just Because You’re A Lawyer Doesn’t Mean You Should Sue

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.

Tree House

“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.


21 thoughts on “Aaron Smith: Just Because You’re A Lawyer Doesn’t Mean You Should Sue

  1. william doriss

    And don’t forget the cheese, crackers, and choice red and white wines. I happen to know they have very good wineries in Missouri, along the Missourit River. My guess is, they showed Aaron Smith in the Show-Me State. Would not be the first time, or the last.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Cheese & Wine? WTF! Missouri is home to McCormick Distilling, one of the largest well booze distilleries in the nation.

    I am thinking a few dozen cases of vodka ought to do the trick if they happen to have a tree planting party. And I happen to know they could even go green and use some of the vodka to fuel the chainsaws to clear the back forty before they sit down to some of that famous Missouri BBQ and talk hometown politics and mandatory bicycle helmets.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Why am I having disturbing imagages of dimestore cap-guns and two old farts Google-ing very odd news feeds. Wrong…just wrong…gentlemen. I am forever scarred

  3. M. L. Flak

    Great piece. Thanks for quoting the Keep Columbia Free article.

    I’m not holding my breath for a $10k donation to Mike’s website without a counter suit, but then that’s not really a donation.

    1. SHG Post author

      There’s always hope that Smith will come to his senses, recognize the wrongfulness of his attack and make amends. It might help for him to know that other lawyers think he’s needlessly embarrassing the profession.

      1. Earl Holt

        Uh….that would be under the premise that he was not wronged in this display of phony journalism.


        1. SHG Post author

          No. That would be under any circumstances. Stop digging, Earl. You’ve made your point that you support Smith, which is fine. Your argument on his behalf, however, sucks.

  4. Cricket Dunn

    Really?? Those trees were dead and dangerous. I don’t think. They may have needed a trimming. It will take so many years to grow new trees that equal the beauty of those. Maybe take one down and plant a new one just to not completely devastate the “estate.” The lights on his law firm are obnoxious so what could we expect.

    Some people just have no feel for the beauty of Columbia’s old southwest. Nor for the kinds of lighting used on buildings if they are not to be so obnoxious as to bring undue attention instead of fitting in with the surroundings.

    Oh brother, where did this guy come from?

  5. Earl Holt

    Every one is entitled to their opinion. But when activists attempt to garner public support or feigned outrage to bolster their own personal cause without giving the due merit to the homeowner, then they started the pissing match. I’m not a lawyer and have a like sense of disgust at frivolous lawsuits. But in this instance I think Mr. Smith is very justified in his response. Using a blog or other widely followed bully pulpit to stir public outrage is a power that should not be exempt from the repercussions of their written words. It’s inflammatory and a very common media practice these days as an attempt to try someone outside the court of law without having all the facts in evidence. Damned poor journalism and not very neighborly either. Perhaps this will give Mr. Martin pause the next time he wants to take up another call to action that impugns the character of one of our neighbors. Could be YOU next time.


    1. SHG Post author

      You miss a critical point. If you don’t like words, fight them with words of your own, not a lawsuit to silence the words you don’t like. I have no horse in the race. I don’t know whether Smith was right to cut down the trees or not, or whether the complaints about his cutting down the trees were warranted or not.

      I do, however, know that his lawsuit was a poor response.

      And, by the way, the “could be YOU next time” line is ignorant and pathetic, and undermines any credibility you might otherwise have. That sort of infantile appeal to fear is used by people who are shooting blanks.

  6. CMJ

    Earl Holt should read the comments below the story in the local newspaper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, about this. Doing so suggests that trying to pin blame on the editorial about the trees for “public outrage” or “activists attempting to garner public support” is misplaced.

    The estate home was very prominent, and on a very busy street. The editorial came long after the trees were cut. Some of the many comments include:

    “You had to see those trees and the way they were hacked and left for weeks to understand what the neighbors were talking about. Since then he finally cleared them, but the horror show lasted too long.”

    “Why did you leave the shattered trunks there for so long? That’s what people were commenting on. It WAS tree mutilation. ”

    “Mr. Smith indeed has the right, as Mike Martin continually emphasized in his articles, to do what he wants with his property (within existing zoning regs, of course). What was particularly egregious and ugly about his project–and what isn’t reported–is that the yard was bulldozed, the trees raggedly chopped down and left lying on what was once a lawn–and the whole mess stayed there for close to two months, creating a colossal neighborhood eyesore about which many complained, likening it to a World War I no-man’s land, among other things. Too bad The Trib didn’t include a photograph.”

    “The yard, and trees were beautiful. Why did he feel the need to remove every tree in the front yard? What happens next, remove the grass?”

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