Sea Pines lawyers argue to overturn $6 million verdict

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HILTON HEAD

Sea Pines lawyers argue to overturn $6 million verdict

By PATRICK DONOHUE
pdonohue@beaufortgazette.com
Published Monday, July 2, 2012   |  615 Words  |  

Attorneys for Sea Pines' security chief and its property owners association requested Monday that a $6 million verdict awarded to Hilton Head Island's municipal judge be overturned.

Judge Carmen Mullen heard post-trial motions for about an hour in the Beaufort County Courthouse and will issue a ruling later.

Municipal Judge Maureen Coffey sued Community Services Associates and its security chief, George Breed, accusing them 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. On June 6, a jury awarded her $2 million in damages for defamation, $4 million in punitive damages and $6,050 compensation for counseling and medical expenses.

CSA attorney Andrew Halio of Charleston asked Mullen to overturn the verdict because the $6 million award was "grossly excessive."

He also called the jury's $4 million punitive award "unconstitutional" because it violated Breed's right to due process.

"I've lost cases before, but this verdict floored me," Halio said. "It is shocking. It is disappointing, and it is totally disproportionate to the injuries reported by (Coffey) and the evidence in this case. It's just too much."

Coffey's attorney, Robert Mathison of Hilton Head Island, said the award was reasonable, in part, because of assertions by the defense and the expert testimony of a former appellate judge, William Howard, who said Coffey was a public official and Sea Pines' officials had every right to question her actions.

While this raised the legal standard for Coffey to prove defamation, it also raised the value of her reputation if the jury found it had been damaged, Mathison said.

"We heard testimony from a former appellate judge who said that he and Judge Coffey were subject to the same standards," Mathison said. "If someone criticized Judge Howard and facilitated the publication of a letter calling him biased and prejudiced ... no one would balk at the notion that he receive $2 million. In many ways, my opponents were the authors of their own undoing."

Halio asked for a new trial if the verdict is upheld, alleging that Mullen prejudiced the jury against his clients with several erroneous rulings, including allowing the jury to hear evidence of CSA's 2011 financial statements and testimony that the CSA board voted to indemnify Breed. The board also voted to cover Breed's legal expenses and the judgment against him, according to testimony.

Mullen questioned both attorneys Monday and said the legal questions before her were difficult ones.

"Damage to someone's reputation is so amorphous," Mullen said. "How do you put a number on it? Well, we asked the jury to put a number on it, and in this case, they did."

It is not certain when Mullen will rule.

Until then, the hefty verdict will weigh on Sea Pines' legal team.

"I'm still shocked," Halio said after the hearing. "Carrying around this $6 million gorilla has not been real fun."

Related content

  1. Sea Pines officials challenge $6M verdict in judge's defamation suit, June 18, 2012
  2. Hilton Head judge wins $6M in Sea Pines defamation lawsuit, June 6, 2012
  3. Jurors to deliberate charges in Hilton Head judge's defamation suit, June 5, 2012