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Charleston Carriage Works is suing the Charleston Animal Society, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates and founder Ellen Harley for defamation. This horse, named Trevor, was being hosed down in the barn last August. File/Staff

Critics of Charleston’s carriage tours who were sued for defamation say the complaint is so vague that they can’t answer the allegations.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs have dropped a claim that the critics violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a federal charge.

The Charleston Animal Society, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates and founder Ellen Harley are asking a judge to require Charleston Carriage Works to file an amended complaint with more details of when and where the alleged defamation occurred.

Otherwise, the lawsuit should be dismissed, according to a request filed last week in U.S. District Court in Charleston.

The new motion also argues that the carriage company needs to prove malice to sustain a claim of defamation, since Charleston Carriage Works has been part of the public debate over the treatment of horses. A public figure can claim libel only when a false statement is published with harmful intent.

Attorneys for Charleston Carriage Works filed the complaint in late May. The company alleges that the Animal Society and Carriage Horse Advocates knowingly put out false information to discredit the carriage operator and hurt the business, including claims that a horse that had tripped had collapsed and died from heat exhaustion.

The complaint didn’t provide any examples of who made the claim or when and how it was made.

The lawsuit alleges the two groups used "social media to create an environment of hostility, designed to intimidate the plaintiff’s managers and employees, ruin its business, and encourage others to undertake physical acts against the plaintiff’s managers and employees." As a result, employees have allegedly suffered "mental anguish and fear from the receipt of death and arson threats."

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The complaint doesn’t cite any examples.

"The allegations ... are so vague and conclusory that Defendants cannot reasonably be expected to frame a responsive pleading," according to the defendants' request for a more definite statement.

The original complaint also alleged that the critics violated the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.

The federal law was passed in 2006 to rein in animal activists, particularly those protesting the use of animals in medical experiments. The complaint pointed out that the law prohibits "damaging or interfering with the operation of an animal enterprise" or conduct that "places a person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person."

The defendants filed a notice that they were moving the case into federal court because of that claim. The plaintiffs amended their complaint to drop the reference to the Animal Rights Terrorism Act, "asserting only claims to remedies provided under South Carolina law" and asked that the case be kept in Charleston County Court. So far, the case remains in federal court.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.