VANCOUVER, Feb 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Canadian forestry giant is using legislation most often deployed against the mafia to sue Greenpeace over allegations about the firm's environmental record in the latest legal battle between campaigners and resource companies.
Launched by Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products the case will reverberate beyond the United States as it impacts how defamation and free speech rules are interpreted and how activist groups can be treated during prosecution.
A judge in the U.S. state of Georgia is weighing a motion by Greenpeace to dismiss the case and a decision on whether it can proceed is expected soon, lawyers for both sides said.
Resolute is seeking $300 million from Greenpeace International, Greenpeace U.S. and other branches of the environmental organization, along with Stand.earth, another North American activist group, Greenpeace said in a statement.
"This case is a big deal," Ted Hamilton, a legal researcher with the Climate Defense Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It's one of the few sentiments upon which both sides agree in litigation launched under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, normally reserved for illegal syndicates.
Michael Bowe, an attorney from Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP representing Resolute, said Greenpeace leveraged false and defamatory claims against the company's operations in Canada's Boreal forest in order to solicit donations.
In its campaign materials, Greenpeace called Resolute a "forest destroyer" whose activities hurt indigenous people in Canada, threaten wildlife and contribute to climate change - claims rejected by the company's lawyers.
"We are being slandered, donors are being misled and no legitimate environmental cause is being advanced," Bowe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Resolute says it has planted more than one billion trees in Canada's Boreal forest and is responsible for virtually no permanent lost woodland acreage.
"The company cares about the Boreal forest a lot more than Greenpeace," said Bowe.
Attorneys for Greenpeace International stand behind the group's "forest destroyer" statements, accusing the Resolute of trying to intimidate critics and trample free speech.
"This case ... is about the right of advocacy groups to offer criticisms (of companies) without the threat of crippling lawsuits," Greenpeace attorney Jasper Teulings told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
If the company believes that statements by Greenpeace such as the "forest destroyer" moniker are inaccurate they should sue under defamation laws, rather than legislation designed to take down the mafia, Teulings said.
"Our work on forests focuses on exposing and documenting unsustainable industry practices, in an effort to get corporations to adopt better methods that protect crucial forest habitats," said Teulings.
Other large companies, including Asia Pulp & Paper, Kimberley-Clark and McDonalds have worked with Greenpeace to improve their sustainability practices following criticism without resorting to Resolute's "bully tactics", he said.
Resolute said Greenpeace is not the victim in the case as the campaign group has offices in 41 countries, a 2014 budget of more than $330 million, and owns multi-million dollar yachts.
Greenpeace was able to raise these funds by spreading misinformation about Resolute and other firms, the company said, in a claim strongly denied by the environmental group.
Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org