Horse drawn carriage in Chicago

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The owners of Chicago’s three licensed horse-drawn carriage companies have rolled out a lawsuit against a group of animal welfare activists, who the vendors accuse of conspiring to disrupt their businesses and smear their reputations.

On Sept. 11, the owners of the Chicago-based companies Antique Coach & Carriage, Great Lakes Horse & Carriage and Chicago Horse & Carriage banded together to file suit in Cook County Circuit Court against a group of defendants, individually represented by activists Jodie Wiederkehr and Debby Rubenstein, of the Chicago Alliance for Animals.

Individual plaintiffs include James Rogers and Debbie Hay, of Antique Coach & Carriage, and Larry Ortega, of Chicago Horse & Carriage.

The lawsuit also names the Center for Ethical Science as a defendant.

According to the complaint, the carriage ride vendors claim since 2016 Wiederkehr and others in the defendant organizations have pursued an organized campaign – a “civil conspiracy,” the carriage vendors say – to essentially stalk the carriages as they cart customers along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and elsewhere in downtown Chicago, and to spread “false information” about the carriage vendors on the internet and directly to customers, even as they ride in the carriages.

According to the complaint, the defendants regularly “follow the carriages … videotaping the carriages and the customers making various false statements to the customers.” Among the allegedly false claims, the vendors say the defendant activists assert the vendors mistreat and abuse their horses and break Chicago’s ordinances governing the operation of such carriage rides.

 The complaint also asserts the defendant activists post “false and misleading information” about the vendors “on social media and on the website belonging to defendant Chicago Alliance for Animals.” Such posts allegedly include “pictures of horses allegedly injured or killed while pulling carriages, and suggesting that these incidents occurred in Chicago and were therefore the responsibility of the (vendor) plaintiffs.” The posts allegedly also include less sensational claims concerning the vendors’ alleged mistreatment of their horses, including overworking the horses or failing to properly water the horses.

Further, the complaint asserts the defendant activists spread allegedly false information to Chicago aldermen and other officials, to persuade City Hall to pull their licenses and remove the carriages from the streets.

The lawsuit comes as the latest maneuver in a years-long tussle between the carriage vendors and the activists. While the lawsuit marks the first time the conflict has spilled into the courts, the battle has played out in the press and public eye for some time. In late 2017, for instance, WTTW-TV Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight aired and published a report on the activists’ concerns with the treatment of the vendors’ horses and their attempts to persuade the city to, at a minimum, increase enforcement of city rules applicable to the carriage ride operations.

In that report, the vendors indicated they already believed the activists’ conduct had gone beyond mere First Amendment issue advocacy and speech, and had crossed the line into defamation and illegal interference with their business.

The lawsuit also comes shortly after the Chicago City Council held hearings on whether to ban such carriage rides altogether, and a number of aldermen indicated support for the proposal.

In the lawsuit, the carriage ride vendors leveled 63 accounts against the defendants, including civil conspiracy, defamation, false light and interference with business, among others. The plaintiffs are seeking damages of at least $50,000, plus punitive damages and attorney fees.

The vendors are represented in the action by attorney Timothy M. Murphy, of Harwood Heights.