Jury gives plaintiff attorney's fees in libel lawsuit
A St. Clair County jury awarded $3,783 to a woman who sued a contractor who previously sued her for libel, a figure to cover her attorney's fees.
Defense attorney Lloyd M. Cueto told the jury during closing arguments that the only damage plaintiff Sandra Baldwin suffered were $3,700 in attorney's fees.
Baldwin was sued in 2008 by SSM Contractors Inc. over comments she allegedly made opposing zoning variances the company wanted for construction projects in St. Clair County.
She had claimed that as a result of SSM owner Richard Infortunio's suit, she was afraid to speak out at government meetings.
She also claimed that she had not spoken with the press for fear of retaliation. Baldwin had opposed SSM's requests for zoning variances in the past.
"What stressed her out was when she met with her lawyers and found it could cost $50,000 to defend her," Cueto said. "If someone sues you, you beat the lawsuit."
SSM's suit against Baldwin was dismissed in October 2008. The suit also named Fairview Heights Alderman Bonnie Crossley as a defendant.
Baldwin then counter-sued claiming the contractor attempted to intimidate her with the suit and that it was quashing her freedom of speech.
"All he cared about was bringing a lawsuit against her in order to shut her up," said Patricia Zimmer, Baldwin's attorney.
"He wasn't going to let a housewife interfere with that zoning change," Zimmer said in reference to comments made by Infortunio.
"Sandra Baldwin felt compelled to speak out on a proposal that affected herself and her property," Zimmer said. "She cared about it.
"What you will decide is what SSM's intentions were when they sued in 2008.
In response, Infortunio said, "We filed it (lawsuit) to stop her from lying."
Zimmer told the jury that Baldwin felt compelled to speak out on a proposal that affected herself and her property.
"What you will decide is what were SSM's intentions when they sued her in 2008?" Zimmer said. "A malicious lawsuit is an improper motive."
Any motive other than bringing the party to justice is a wrong motive, Zimmer explained.
"Baldwin never made any statement defaming SSM Contractors," Zimmer said. "All her efforts were spent making that position clear.
"She was the voice behind her neighborhood organization. The complaint attributes statements to Sandy Baldwin that she never made.
"This lawsuit shut her down immediately. She never again raised any opposition to SSM's plan. That was their goal and they achieved that."
Closing arguments were held before lunch. The verdict was delivered after lunch.
St. Clair County Associate Judge Vincent Lopinot presided.
Defense attorney Cueto is the son of St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd A. Cueto.
The case is St. Clair case number 09-L-227.