Landry's must pay an animal welfare organization it sued for defamation $450,000 in sanctions, a Harris County District Judge ruled Wednesday, upon dismissing the case.
The restaurant empire had sued the Animal League Defense Fund and two individual advocates last November over their allegations of mistreatment of white tigers on display at Houston's Downtown Aquarium.
Judge Steven Kirkland dismissed Landry's suit with prejudice and wrote that the sanctions were necessary "to deter Plaintiffs from filing similar actions in the future." Kirkland also ordered Landry's to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees.
The California-based Animal League Defense Fund last year threatened to sue Landry's over the tigers, which the group claimed were largely confined in concrete rooms and barely allowed to see sunlight. Landry's accused the advocates of "essentially extort[ing]" Landry's "into giving up the tigers, taking them from the only home and caregivers they have ever known and sending them to a 'sanctuary.'"
Landry's argued in its lawsuit that ALDF and advocates Cheryl Conley and Carney Anne Nasser "defamed the good name of a well-established business with deliberately false accusations of animal mistreatment and criminal conduct in an attempt to impose a fringe social agenda on a law-abiding business."
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Landry's further argued that the "tigers are held and exhibited in complete and full compliance with all applicable laws, federal or state."
But the animal advocates argued that, for 12 years, Landry's has "confined four adult tigers in indoor, concrete pens beneath a seafood restaurant. Landry's does not allow the tigers outdoors; they live behind bars and glass and have never experienced nature. Because there is a resin-covered skylight nearby, and the tigers sometimes get 'sod and wood chips,' Landry's calls this treatment humane."
In a January press release, Animal League Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Walls called Landry's defamation suit "a blatant attempt to silence free speech," and the group's Houston attorney, Adam Milasincic, argued that the company and its owner, billionaire Tilman Fertitta — the star of reality show Billion Dollar Buyer — are public figures and fair game for public discussion.
—Update, Feb. 24, 12:48 pm: John Simpson, an attorney for Landry's, stated in an email that the ruling "does not impact the white tigers at the Downtown Aquarium. Naturally, we are surprised at the Court’s ruling prematurely dismissing the defamation lawsuit. It is unfortunate when false allegations are made against law-abiding citizens. The Court’s ruling, including the sanction award, will be appealed and should be overturned."