An ongoing feud between a Charleston carriage horse company and animal-rights groups continued Tuesday as the advocates being sued again for defamation called the latest litigation “a sham.”

Joe Elmore, CEO of the Charleston Animal Society, and Ellen Harley, founder of Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates, held a news conference characterizing the lawsuit filed against them by Charleston Carriage Works as vague and unfounded.

A similar suit claiming libel, defamation and conspiracywas first filed in Charleston County in May. The case moved to U.S. District Court because the complaint also accused the groups of violating the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Attorneys for the carriage company later filed a motion to drop that claim and bump the case back to state court.

Charleston Carriage Works ultimately dropped the federal lawsuit last week and filed another complaint in state court Friday.

“This is a misuse of the court system, and it distracts the public from the real issue, which is making the working conditions of the animals more humane,” Elmore said Tuesday as he read from a statement.

The suit alleges that the two groups knowingly published false information on social media to discredit the carriage operators, which Charleston Carriage Works said has driven away business and caused employees to fear for their safety due to threats of death and arson. The groups are accused of falsely claiming that a horse who had tripped last year had collapsed and died of heat exhaustion.

Animal-rights activists and carriage companies for years have clashed about horses’ working conditions. Advocates have called for the industry to adopt different practices, and the Animal Society has been pushing for an independent study of how the animals tolerate pulling passengers in the summer heat. Meanwhile, carriage company operators have pushed back against claims of animal abuse and said they take extensive precautions to care for their horses.

Most recently, several carriage companies held a news conference demanding that Harley take down a billboard on Interstate 26 that equated a horse pulling 17 passengers in 95-degree heat with abuse. 

Carriage tours are regulated by a city ordinance, which calls for tours to cease after four straight temperature readings of 95 degrees.

The Animal Society and Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates have argued that the case against them should be dropped altogether, saying in a court filing that allegations were so vague that they couldn’t answer them.

Elmore said the Animal Society has never attacked anyone associated with the carriage industry, and he defended the group’s right to make “legitimate criticisms.” 

Harley, who previously said the lawsuit’s purpose was to “harass and intimidate” activists like her, said Charleston Carriage Works is fighting a “PR war they know they cannot win and in fact are losing by every objective measure.” 

Broderick Christoff, owner of Charleston Carriage Works, said in a statement that his business shares the Animal Society’s and Harley’s love for animals. 

“Where we part company is in our commitment to what is true,” he said, “and for that reason, despite our reaching out to them before filing suit, they left us no choice but to resolve our differences in the legal system where rules of evidence and rules of conduct provide means to the truth.”