A libel lawsuit filed nearly three years ago by the village of North Riverside’s paramedic vendor against a village trustee and slate of candidates running for office in 2013 is headed to trial in the coming months unless an appeals court intervenes.
On Jan. 19, Judge James O’Hara denied a motion to dismiss the case that had been filed by the defendants back in January 2014.
The defendants in the case are North Riverside Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos as well as former North Riverside trustee Rocco DeSantis, along with Marybelle Mandel, Peter Culafic, Annabelle Downs and Luigi “Gino” LaBellarte.
DeSantis, Culafic, Downs, Mandel and LaBellarte were members of a political slate known as the Transparency and Accountability in Politics Party, which was aligned with Demopoulos, and was running against Mayor Hubert Hermanek and a slate of candidates from the VIP Party in the spring of 2013.
The centerpiece of the highly contentious election was a campaign promise by TAP to rid the village of Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI), the village’s longtime paramedic contracting service, which has the firm support of the VIP Party.
PSI charged in its lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 26, 2013 in the middle of the campaign, that the TAP campaign website and Demopoulos’ personal website contained statements about PSI that were libelous, deterred other towns from using its services and had a “chilling effect of tainting the general public’s perception” of the company.
Lawrence Zdarsky, who is representing all of the defendants in the case, said that the libel case ought to be dismissed, because the statements were protected political speech.
“There’s immunity for defendants in cases that are brought to inhibit or chill free speech when they are exercising their First Amendment rights or making statements as participants in the government process,” Zdarsky said.
Zdarsky characterized PSI’s lawsuit as a SLAPP action — a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. He also cited the Illinois Citizens Participation Act as the basis for his argument that the case ought to be dismissed.
The law, passed in 1995, states that courts “must provide the utmost protection for the free exercise of these rights of petition, speech, association and government participation.”
It appeared early on in the case that Zdarsky’s argument might carry the day. After filing a motion to dismiss back in August 2013, PSI amended its complaint against the defendants and O’Hara allowed discovery to proceed.
“This thing should have been laid to rest long ago,” Zdarsky said.
Last month, the judge denied the motion to dismiss and set the case for trial. At that point Zdarsky filed an interlocutory appeal to the Illinois Court of Appeals. Zdarsky has until mid-February to file his appeal and PSI will have 21 days to respond.
If the appellate court accepts the appeal, it could take between three to six months for both sides to receive word on whether or not the case will immediately move to trial.