Utica billboards (copy)

Ind. 265 near the Lewis and Clark Bridge is shown in this August 2017 file photo.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court was expected to hear oral arguments Thursday in an appeals case related to attorneys’ fees incurred in a billboard lawsuit initiated by River Ridge Development Authority in 2017 and dismissed a year later.

In 2017, the River Ridge Development Authority (RRDA) filed the civil lawsuit in Clark County against Outfront Media, LLC, No Moore, Inc., The Schlosser Family Partnership, the Town of Utica and the Utica Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Indiana Department of Transportation seeking to prevent construction of seven billboards along Interstate 265 in Utica which would connect to the planned $20 million entrance to the River Ridge Commerce Center.

The initial complaint stated that the billboards were not legally permitted and if built, would negatively impact the “marketability, visibility and profitability” of the business park. The Indiana Department of Transportation was later dropped from the lawsuit and in April 2018, River Ridge dropped the entire lawsuit.

The entities sued for legal fees in what they said was a “frivolous lawsuit,” the News and Tribune previously reported and in September 2018, Special Judge Richard Striegel ruled that the RRDA had 30 days to pay attorneys fees and other legal costs totaling $237,440 to the original defendants.

“The timing of RRDA’s voluntary dismissal confirms that the purpose of this lawsuit was to buy time for the approval of the scenic byway...,” the judge’s 18-page order states, in part.

“This court...finds that the RRDA brought a meritless lawsuit, inflicting significant costs on a small town and business entities...”

Striegel’s order also stated that the RRDA had been inconsistent before and after filing the original lawsuit, including that the board had at one point sought advertising on two of the proposed billboards.

That same month, the RRDA appealed the case and ultimately won, the Indiana Court of Appeals order from July of last year stating that the filing had “raised numerous issues,” and that it was worth determining whether or not the trial court erred when ordering the RRDA to pay these fees.

On Aug. 30, the defendants petitioned to transfer the case to the Indiana Supreme Court, their brief stating in part that to not sanction the RRDA in this case could create “an alarming loophole or future litigation: file a lawsuit for any reason — even admit it is frivolous, unreasonable or groundless — and as long as you voluntarily dismiss under [statutory trial rules], the court is powerless to sanction you,” the petition reads.

The Indiana Supreme Court accepted the case Dec. 5.

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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