Sea Pines officials challenge $6M verdict in judge's defamation suit

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Coffey verdict challenged

Sea Pines officials challenge $6M verdict in judge's defamation suit

Published Monday, June 18, 2012   |  775 Words  |  

Attorneys for Sea Pines' security chief and property owners association are seeking a new trial after a jury ordered them to pay $6 million, arguing that the judge erred in allowing evidence and testimony that led to the verdict against them in a defamation lawsuit.

A Beaufort County jury sided with Hilton Head Island Municipal Judge Maureen Coffey earlier this month. Coffey accused Community Services Associates and its security chief, George Breed, of harassing and defaming her and her family during an investigation of a series of break-ins in 2004 and 2008, in which her brother was a suspect.

CSA and Breed are asking 14th Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen, who presided over the case, to overturn the verdict because the $6 million award for damages -- four times more than Coffey requested -- is "grossly excessive."

CSA attorney Andrew Halio argues in court filings the $4 million in punitive damages is so excessive it violates Breed's right to due process. He has asked the total amount be reduced to $192,050.

Failing that, CSA and Breed have asked for a new trial. Their attorneys claim Mullen prejudiced the jury against their clients with several erroneous rulings.

Coffey's lawsuit said CSA and Breed maligned her by sharing with town and Sea Pines officials copies of a judicial complaint accusing her of unethical conduct. The complaint, dismissed by the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct, was to remain confidential, in keeping with commission rules.

The jury determined Coffey proved "by clear and convincing evidence" that Breed and the CSA acted maliciously by making statements about Coffey that were false or that they should have known were false, according to the verdict, which CSA and Breed dispute in post-trial motions filed Friday.

Halio argues Breed's complaint contains "opinions and fair comments about a public official" that are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. He also argues that rumors Coffey had an affair with a former Sea Pines security officer were made by employees for whom CSA "cannot be held vicariously liable."

Halio denies Coffey's reputation was damaged as a result of Breed's and CSA's actions, by the fact no one, except Coffey, testified to that effect during trial. She also received a raise when her contract with the town was renewed in 2011. Her salary increased from $85,600 to $87,000.

"The evidence relating to alleged damage to (Coffey's) reputation was minimal at best," according Halio's court filing. "Clearly, the evidence does not warrant a multi-million dollar award of damages."

He contends Mullen should not have allowed:

  • Hearsay evidence about Coffey's alleged affair and other "alleged bad acts" by Breed and CSA employees.
  • Evidence of CSA's 2011 financial statement and testimony that the CSA board voted to indemnify Breed.
  • Evidence Breed transferred half of the interest in his home to his wife in July 2008.
  • Exclusion of a separate grievance filed against Coffey by attorney Russell Keep.
  • Testimony from Calibogue Cay resident Richard Sonberg, who was not previously identified as a witness and was subpoenaed a few days before trial. Sonberg testified to being told by CSA executive vice president Cary Kelley about the judicial complaint against Coffey during a meeting of that community's owners association. Kelley was briefing the group of Sea Pines residents on the nature of Coffey's lawsuit and other matters involving CSA, according to Sonberg.
  • Mullen, who is expected to rule on the motions, declined to comment Monday. A hearing had not been scheduled as of Monday afternoon.

    Attempts Monday to reach Coffey's attorney, Robert Mathison, for comment were unsuccessful.

    The CSA board will appeal the decision if Mullen does not agree to their post-trial motions, according to a statement issued late Friday.

    Related content

    1. Hilton Head judge wins $6M in Sea Pines defamation lawsuit: June 6, 2012
    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