Ronald Dies, the one-term former police chief of Eunice, has been ordered by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal to pay $20,000 for defaming the owners of a towing service. The appeals court’s opinion, released Thursday, overturns a ruling by District Judge Alonzo Harris, who in March of this year rejected the defamation claims of Susan and Robbie Arnaud, owners of Robbie’s Wrecker Service.
Prior to Dies’ election as chief of police in a November 2010 runoff, the Arnauds’ company had been one of three approved vendors for providing towing services to the town of Eunice. However, shortly after Dies’ election but before he assumed office in January of 2011, he notified the Arnauds that Robbie’s Wrecker Service was being removed from that list. According to the 3rd Circuit opinion, Dies told the Arnauds he was removing them because their company’s office is outside the city limits of Eunice.
But an enterprising reporter for The Eunice News, Jim Butler, noticed that Robbie’s Wrecker Service had been removed the vendor list and asked Dies about it. His response didn’t jibe with what he told the Arnauds: “We had numerous complaints about the firm’s selective response to calls when they came up on the rotation,” Dies is quoted as saying in a Jan. 6, 2011 article in The Eunice News.
Eunice being a small town, the comment quickly became a topic of barber shop discussion. Incensed, the Arnauds filed suit. The suit went through the usual sausage grinder of motions and hearings, finally landing in court before Judge Harris in January of this year. According to the 3rd Circut, “the trial court initially agreed ... that the Arnauds’ removal from the rotation list ‘was in part probably due to some type of political payback’ but then concluded that the Arnauds ‘have not shown any damages for defamation.’
The appeals court disagreed:
It is clear that, by leaving the complete burden of proof to the Arnauds, the trial court categorized the words at issue in this litigation in the category of words “susceptible of a defamatory meaning.” We find that to be legal error on the part of the trial court. The statement attributed to Mr. Dies is defamatory per se, as it would tend to harm the Arnauds' business reputation, lower their standing in the community, and might deter individuals from doing business with them.
The appeals court ordered Dies to pay $10,000 each to Susan and Robbie Arnaud, in addition to court costs. Dies lost his re-election bid in November 2014. A call to Robbie's Wrecker Service went to a voicemail box that had not been set up.