RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – The widow of a man killed by a landfill explosion cannot sue the landfill operators for allegedly causing her husband’s death by paying off former litigants in exchange for their promise to keep quiet about the dump’s environmental and safety concerns, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Patricia Stephens said the death of her husband, a former landfill manager, could have been prevented if other workers and citizens were able to speak freely about the dangers of the dump in Ivy, Va. The landfill’s operators – Albemarle County, the city of Charlottesville and the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority – entered into settlement agreements in 2000 with nearby residents and property owners who were concerned about water and air pollution from the landfill. To receive their settlements benefits, litigants had to relinquish their right to speak openly about the landfill.
Three years later, Stephens’ husband, Wayne, died from an explosion sparked by the cutting torch he was using to cut oil storage tanks for resale as scrap metal.
Stephens said the explosion would not have occurred if citizens were able to publicly criticize the landfill, leading to better monitoring of its activities. She demanded $16 million in damages for wrongful death and the violation of her First Amendment right to receive information about the landfill.
The appeals court ruled that Stephens failed to show that she was a “potential recipient” of the suppressed speech, or that people were willing to talk to her about the landfill.
“Because Stephens has not provided factual support for this conjecture, she cannot demonstrate that the speech restrictions in the settlements caused her, or her husband, any injury,” Judge Williams wrote.