Hilton Head judge wins $6M in Sea Pines defamation lawsuit

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Hilton Head judge wins $6M in Sea Pines defamation lawsuit

By TOM BARTON
tbarton@islandpacket.com
Published Wednesday, June 6, 2012   |  829 Words  |  

A jury awarded a Hilton Head Island judge more than $6 million in damages Wednesday in a defamation suit against Sea Pines' security chief and its property owners association.

The decision followed six days of testimony on Municipal Court Judge Maureen Coffey's lawsuit, which accused the Sea Pines' property owners association, Community Services Associates, and its security chief, George Breed, of harassing and defaming her and her family while authorities investigated a series of break-ins in 2004 and 2008, in which her adopted brother was a suspect.

Coffey proved "by clear and convincing evidence" that Breed and CSA made statements about Coffey that were false or that they should have known were false, according to the verdict.

She was awarded $2 million in damages to her reputation, $4 million in punitive damages and $6,050 in compensation for counseling and medical expenses resulting from the defendants' actions.

Coffey, Breed, CSA officials and their attorneys declined comment after the verdict was read in the Beaufort County Courthouse by Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen.

CSA has agreed to cover Breed's legal expenses and the judgment against him, according to testimony during the trial. A 2011 CSA financial report introduced at trial indicated the association has $6.7 million in an "unallocated reserve fund."

Attempts Wednesday to reach CSA president Bob Mang were unsuccessful.

CSA board member and former president John McLauchlin said he could not comment on the verdict "because I imagine we'll be appealing that."

McLauchlin said the reserve fund is set aside for "infrastructure replacement and renovations" and would not be available to pay Coffey damages, should they stand on appeal. He would not comment on how CSA might pay.

Neither Mullen nor attorneys for either side objected to the verdict after it was read. Breed and CSA have 10 days to file a challenge to the verdict and the damages.

THE BACKGROUND

In a deposition read in court last week, Breed stood by his contention that Coffey "hindered and interfered" with a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigation of Otis Coffey, the judge's adopted brother. Breed's suspicions led him to file a judicial complaint against Coffey that was later dismissed.

In his letter to the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct, Breed alleged Coffey cannot be neutral in cases involving Sea Pines, and she showed a pattern of "prejudicial" conduct.

Judges should expect to be criticized, CSA attorney Andrew Halio told the jury Tuesday.

Halio argued Coffey's actions gave the appearance that she was "trying to throw her weight around as a judge."

As such, Breed and CSA were within their First Amendment rights to complain of her conduct as a public official, Halio said.

S.C. Appeals Court rules also prohibit judges from filing civil lawsuits against those who lodge complaints against them.

Maureen Coffey's attorney, Robert Mathison, however, said she had a right to sue because Breed and CSA tarnished her reputation by sharing the judicial complaint with town officials and others in Sea Pines. Judicial complaints are confidential until formal charges of misconduct are filed.

Before trial, Breed and CSA argued for a favorable judgment by the court, saying there was no evidence Breed's statements were false or made with malicious intent. But Mullen ruled there were sufficient questions about the facts of the case for it to go to trial.

Mathison said Breed's statements were false, based on testimony from sheriff's officials that Coffey never interfered with their investigation into the Sea Pines break-ins. He also cited a failure by Breed and CSA to provide "a shred of evidence" that Coffey acted with bias while hearing cases, and he noted that the state Commission on Judicial Conduct determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges against Coffey or further investigate Breed's claim.

Related content

  1. S.C. Rules of Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement: Rule 12 -- Access to disciplinary information
  2. Jurors to deliberate charges in Hilton Head judge's defamation suit: June 5, 2012
  3. Former appellate judge: Sea Pines officials right to question judge's actions: June 4, 2012
  4. Breed denies directing Sea Pines officer to lie, stands behind complaint: June 1, 2012
  5. Sea Pines security officers cast doubt on former co-worker's testimony: May 31, 2012
  6. Former Sea Pines officer testifies security chief ordered him to lie: May 30, 2012