Barrister Victoria Sharples QC told a jury and Mr Justice Eady that Jenifer Howlett, who rose to become Mayor of Castle Point BC shortly after being elected as a Labour councillor, has had her reputation ruined by Terry Holding and his company Holding and Barnes Plc.
Mr Holding, said the barrister, even took to the skies in his own light-aircraft in order to trail banners allegedly defamatory to the mother-of-three and drop 'thousands' of leaflets on the local area.
Setting the scene for the jury, Ms Sharples said Ms Howlett, a 'decent, hard working and well known' member of her local community, was 'thrown into turmoil' in January 1996 when her son disappeared after splitting from his wife.
He turned up a few days later and after an 'emotional' evening Ms Howlett went to bed having taken 'strong painkillers' and she got up the next morning 'still exhausted' to do her weekly shop at Tesco's in Pitsea.
When she left the store, said Ms Sharples, she was approached by two security guards and subsequently accused of not paying for six items that hadn't been scanned at the till.
Ms Howlett - accompanied in court today by her husband of 37 years - denied doing anything more than making a mistake, and soon the police were called.
'They heard both sides of the story, and then they took Ms Howlett outside and let her go and they did so because they concluded she had done nothing wrong,' said Ms Sharples.
Nothing more came of the incident - which Mrs Howlett reported to the c hief executive of Castle Point BC - until Mr Holding made a 'controversial' planning application in 1999 in order to develop a 35-acre site for his car salvaging business.
Ms Sharples said that around the same time Mr Holding made a 'no strings attached' £20,000 donation to the council, and that was one of the reasons why Ms Howlett opposed the application, which was eventually passed.
This objection sparked off the 'hate campaign' said Ms Sharples, as Mr Holding felt his company was being accused of 'bribery and corruption'.
He called on Ms Howlett to either resign or be sacked from the council and began to fly banners and print leaflets and letters which accused her of being a shoplifter and a thief, and also alleged that the Labour party had covered up her wrong doing.
Ms Sharples added that Mr Holding - whose campaign against Ms Howlett was designed to cause 'maximum publicity, maximum damage and maximum humiliation and stress' - also targeted other local politicians including MP Christine Butler.
Ms Howlett is suing over three banners trailed from an aircraft, with one on April 25, 2001, saying 'Sack all Shoplifters', another on May 21, 2001, saying 'Sue me now Howlett or Resign' and a third on March 22, 2002, reading 'Thief Watch Next Election'.
She also complains about a letter written by Mr Holding to councillor Brian Wilson on January 8, 2001, and copied to 'All Councillors, Yellow Advertiser, Evening Echo, Bob Spink MP and other interested parties'.
'For a number of years Mr Holding and his company have been persecuting Ms Howlett by writing letters and flying banners accusing her of being a shoplifter and a thief,' Ms Sharples told the jury as she concluded her opening.
'They also accused her of trying to cover up her guilt. They have deliberately driven her to a state of despair. They have deliberately harassed and persecuted her.
'Why? Because she was trying to do her job. Because she opposed a planning application a nd spoke her mind. The price she has had to pay is very high. It is no exaggeration to say Ms Howlett's life has been made hell.'
Mr Holding and his company, represented by Thwaites Ronald QC, deny any wrongdoing and are planning to fight the action every inch of the way. In the past, they have even offered to pay Ms Howlett's legal costs.
They also say Ms Howlett was taken to a police station after the incident at Tesco's and was given a formal caution for shoplifting.
The trial, which is due to last two and a half weeks, continues.
STRAND NEWS SERVICE