Written by Jill Nolen
A former defendant in a lawsuit over the purchase prices of property for the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing of Alabama’s plant has now filed suit against the original plaintiffs, including Probate Judge Reese McKinney, in hopes of recouping some of the money he said he lost as a result of bad publicity.
Reuben Thornton Jr., former long-time chairman of the Industrial Development Board, said the accusations of fraud hurt his ability to operate his insurance business, Thornton Insurance. Thornton, who is 79, had developed the business over a span of more than 50 years.
McKinney, as a principal for a company called Southdale LLC, and several other land owners filed suit against more than a dozen different public entities and officials in 2004, arguing that the property owners were defrauded when other land owners received more money per acre for their property.
Although the civil complaints against Thornton were later dismissed, he said he was never able to completely recover from the negative press he received as a result of the lawsuit. The dismissal of the case against him may have cleared his name, Thornton said, but it’s not enough.
“That doesn’t put any money in your pocket. Certainly, we were cleared on every legal level,” Thornton said this week.
“When you make the front page of the Advertiser (accused of multiple counts of fraud), it isn’t a good thing,” Thornton also said. “Once you’re accused of something like that, people get a first impression.”
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The plaintiffs in the original case claim they were defrauded because they received $4,500 an acre for their piece of the plant site in 2002, while a second group of people later received $12,000 an acre. Ultimately, the case was settled with CSX and the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, Stephen Heninger. The conditions of that settlement are confidential.
Hyundai, which was aggressively courted to locate in Alabama, was also originally listed as a defendant, drawing heavy criticism from public officials who said such an action would hurt the area’s ability to recruit industry.
Thornton’s lawsuit is the latest episode in a feud that has been ongoing for about a decade now, but Heninger said it basically amounts to a vindictive act. Thornton filed the lawsuit, which requests a jury trial, in late April and charges the plaintiffs with malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy and negligence.
“I feel sorry for Mr. Thornton. I think it’s misguided, wherever it’s coming from,” Heninger said. “The only way Thornton got out (of the original lawsuit) was because he had immunity.”
Heninger has already filed a motion to dismiss the civil complaint, saying the lawsuit was “an improper attempt to vex, harass and attack the defendants for pursuing their rights for redress and protection in prior litigation,” according to the motion filed in mid-May.
McKinney deferred comment to Heninger.
While Thornton is not saying the lawsuit was the sole reason his business went under, his attorney, Keith Carder, said he believes his client “suffered substantial damages to his reputation and his ability to conduct business.”
The lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount in damages, and Carder said Wednesday he was not in a position to quantify the loss his client suffered at this point.
“Beyond that, I think the court will have to decide what damages he’s entitled to,” Carder said.
Carder argues in the complaint that McKinney and co-plaintiffs Helen Kathryn Wheeler and William Newton Wheeler disregarded “the true facts” and filed a “frivolous and baseless lawsuit” against Thornton anyway.