Vander Doelen: Battle of the Titans

The Windsor Star

By Chris Vander Doelen

I hope I can score a seat in Ontario Superior Court to hear the lawsuit filed against the Ambassador Bridge by two Windsor homeowners this week.

Scalpers would be able to make a fortune on this showdown: a battle of titans, one American, one Canadian.

On the U.S. side is billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun, possibly the most ferocious legal combatant and filer of lawsuits in the region. Moroun has been known to fight a single case for more than 30 years rather than give up against overwhelming odds.

Moroun has defeated governments and even buried judges in the midst of some actions by simply outlasting them. He’s known to have dozens of lawsuits going at once on both sides of the border, against anyone who defies him. Fearless, relentless, loathed.

On the Canadian side, representing the little guy, is legendary Harvey Strosberg, one of the heaviest of legal heavyweights in Canadian law. A Windsor native, his firm spans the country, as does his reach and reputation.

It’s about time Moroun and his Ambassador Bridge group of companies faced a worthy opponent in their long-running war of attrition against the City of Windsor and its citizens – and they’ve finally got one.

No offense to the many other lawyers who have faced down the bridge and won. But Moroun may not have faced one of Strosberg’s calibre yet. A lot of readers probably joined me in cheering this week when we read about the civil lawsuit Sutts, Strosberg LLP have filed on behalf of two families who own badly devalued homes in Olde Sandwich Towne near the bridge.

The property owners are seeking the largest punitive damages in Canadian history – $10 million worth – from the bridge and its owners for allegedly turning their neighbourhood into a slum and destroying their property values.

As nearly everyone who lives in Windsor is aware of and a previous court has already determined (Hilary Payne et al vs. The City of Windsor et al, 2011), that the “dereliction” the Ambassador Bridge showed the 112 homes it bought in Olde Sandwich Towne turned the neighbourhood on Indian Road into a rotting eyesore.

In the previous lawsuit, justice Richard Gates was scathing in his dissection of what the Ambassador Bridge and its agents have done to Windsor’s West end, and why.

So this is going to be good: put me down now for a seat in court because it will be both entertaining and instructive to listen to Strosberg wield his own scalpel with that ruling already on the record.

If he’s on your side, Strosberg is one of the most charming, gifted and successful figures in Canadian law. But if he’s representing the other side he’s downright scary.

Windsor lawyers I talked to this week said they look forward to the showdown with interest. The bridge pretty much declared open war on the city years ago in its push to add a second span to their old crossing.

Specifically, they’ve fought homeowners, individual city councillors and the mayor, the city corporation itself, the province, the federal government, and a dozen or so ministries and agencies in between.

The bridge side of the battle keeps losing – most notably in the 2011 suit against the City of Windsor and in its repeated attempts to block the federal government’s plans to build a competing bridge over the Detroit River.

As an example of the bridge’s breathtaking chutzpah, its lawyers once spent years telling Ottawa that the company’s powers outranked those of the federal government on the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers. It claimed to own the franchise on all forms of vehicle traffic crossing in the region. Nice try, boys, but no.

Strosberg specialize in class action suits, among other things. He is not known for long-shot legal jousts, Don Quixote style. I heard Wednesday that if Strosberg takes a case it’s usually because he’s weighed the risks and concluded he can win.

The bridge issued a rather lame rebuttal to the lawsuit filing, accusing the City of Windsor of being the culprit in its dispute with the residents of Olde Sandwich Towne.

If only the city had allowed it to “safely demolish” the homes, the press release says, the bridge could have proceeded with its “improvements” to the neighborhood.

The main improvement the Ambassador Bridge envisages is building that second span that few on the Canadian side want. That would require a new 150-acre customs plaza which would pretty much obliterate the surrounding neighbourhood.

Other than that, Olde Sandwich will be much “improved” if it agrees to stop fighting the bridge’s plans.

“It is time to put down the swords and accomplish good things,” the statement concludes. That means giving up trying to protect a neighbourhood its residents overwhelmingly say they want preserved.

In other words, Windsor is again being advised to capitulate to a legal bully. Well, Mr. Bully, meet Mr. Strosberg. May the best man win.