MOUNT VERNON – Macoupin County residents who sued owners of a nearby pig farm must pursue the claim in their courthouse rather than St. Clair County, Fifth District appellate judges ruled on Nov. 16.
They reversed Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot, who rejected challenges to St. Clair County jurisdiction from the start of the action in 2012.
Justice Randy Moore wrote, “We cannot conceive of many situations where the interest in having local interests determined locally would be greater than in a case such as this.”
“Macoupin County residents have a strong interest in balancing the interests of farming and enjoyment of neighboring property in Macoupin County,” he wrote.
Fifth District judges had previously remanded the case to Lopinot with instructions to explain his decision.
His explanation didn’t fly.
Moore wrote that, “no party resides in St. Clair County, and each defendant’s residence in Illinois is located in closer proximity to Macoupin County than St. Clair County.”
He wrote that St. Clair County “has absolutely no connection with this case other than the fact that one of the defendants had a registered agent located there at the time that this case was filed.”
Justices Bruce Stewart and Gene Schwarm concurred.
Gregory Shevlin, from the firm of Bruce Cook in Belleville, filed the suit for Joe Clark, Megan Clark, Bob Norris and Tom Gall.
They sought damages from Ronald Seabaugh, Jeff Seabaugh, and Fragrant 40 limited liability company.
Shevlin wrote that defendants raised about 4,500 hogs in the watershed of Taylor Creek, which flows into Macoupin Creek, which flows into the Illinois River.
According to the suit, hogs first arrived there in 2008, and after that, friends and relatives had refused to visit the Clarks.
The Clarks were deprived of the enjoyment of playing outside with their dogs, the suit claims.
The Clarks kept their home closed most of the time, and often slept in the basement, the suit claims.
“Plaintiffs Clark’s ability to watch sunsets, stars and planets has been interfered with,” Shevlin wrote.
“Plaintiffs Clark no longer get to enjoy the fresh smell after a rain.”
Shevlin claimed damages for nausea, headaches, loss of sleep, distress and anxiety.
“Venue is proper in St. Clair County, Illinois, because defendant Fragrant 40’s principal office and registered agent are located at 4239 Woodfield Place, Belleville, Illinois,” Shevlin wrote.
Seabaugh, Seabaugh, and the company moved for transfer to Macoupin County, and Lopinot denied their motion.
They moved for reconsideration, and he denied it.
Ronald Seabaugh moved to dismiss the claims against him, identifying himself as sole member of Fragrant 40.
His lawyer, Holly Reese of Goldenberg Heller in Edwardsville, wrote that he individually had no interest in the property or the operation.
Plaintiffs dropped claims against him in 2013, amending the complaint to assert claims against four investors.
Three investors moved for transfer to Macoupin County, and they brought it to a hearing on Oct. 30, 2013.
Chris Koester, counsel for Tosh Pork, said it was about 150 miles round trip from Belleville to the Macoupin County courthouse.
Joel Benoit, for Silver Creek Pig, said, “It should be a jury in Macoupin County who are more familiar with what may or may not be a nuisance there.”
On Dec. 9, 2013, Lopinot wrote, “Motion to transfer is denied.”
Three investors, all from other states, petitioned the Fifth District to stop the proceedings.
Last November, judges there directed Lopinot to give reasons for his decision.
This March 5, he wrote that at the time of filing, Fragrant 40 was a resident of St. Clair County via its registered agent.
Lopinot wrote that the action was commenced in good faith against all defendants, “with probable cause for the purpose of obtaining judgment against them and not solely for the purpose of fixing venue in St. Clair County.”
He declared St. Clair County more convenient for the investors who appealed, “due in part to the ease of air travel.”
“The court further finds that defendants have not identified any other parties or witnesses who are located in Macoupin County, other than plaintiffs,” Lopinot wrote.
He wrote that there might be no site visit and one could be arranged.
He also found no unfairness in imposing jury duty on St. Clair County residents.
On appeal, Moore, Stewart and Schwarm ruled that he abused his discretion.
“The circuit court abuses its discretion if it acts arbitrarily, fails to employ conscientious judgment, or ignores recognized legal principles,” Moore wrote.
He wrote that Lopinot’s unwillingness to evaluate the possible viewing of the premises “is an indication of arbitrary analysis in favor of the plaintiffs.”