What began as a dispute between neighbors about pet turkeys ended Friday when a Beaufort County jury awarded two Hilton Head Island siblings $4.25 million in damages.
In 2004, defendant Ralph Dupps accused Robert and Jennifer Klippel of taking his turkeys from his Sea Pines home and setting them free. The charges were dismissed, and the Klippels sued Dupps. They claim he accused them falsely and that their wrongful arrest caused public humiliation and emotional distress that drove Robert Klippel to alcohol and Jennifer Klippel to the use of sleep aids and depression medication.
On Friday -- after five days of testimony -- a jury in the 14th Circuit Court of Common Pleas ruled in the Klippels' favor.
"We're dealing with someone who is an immature bully," said attorney Richard Rosen, who represented the Klippels. "This prosecution of Jennifer and Robert was done maliciously, out of pure spite and arrogance, with no probable cause."
But Mary Sharp, an attorney representing Dupps, argued there was nothing extreme or outrageous about her client's use of the judicial system.
"When we believe someone has committed a crime, we have the choice of going to law enforcement or a judge," Sharp said. "It should be clear that (Dupps) considered these birds his pets and they were stolen."
Much of the plaintiffs' claims revolved around arguments that the turkeys shouldn't have been on Dupps property in the first place.
The issue dates back to the fall of 2004 when, according to the Klippels, the birds began roaming their yard, defecating, creating traffic issues and scaring Robert Klippel's son.
After reporting the turkeys to Sea Pines Security, an officer allegedly told the Klippels that Dupps had set them free. The officer offered to help catch the birds and later suggested shooting them, according to the Klippels' complaint.
The Klippels admitted they took the turkeys to a wildlife preserve, saying it was out of concern for the birds' safety.
When Dupps arrived home to find his birds missing, he contacted authorities.
The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office served arrest warrants for petit larceny on the Klippels when they turned themselves in at the Beaufort County Detention Center in January 2005, according to a Sheriff's Office report. They spent about 10 hours each in the detention center, according to testimonies.
The warrants charged the pair with taking seven pet turkeys from Dupps' home at 12 Plantation Drive at about 5 p.m. Dec. 8, 2004.
In his closing arguments, Rosen argued that, according to state and local law, the turkeys were causing a nuisance and should not have been on Dupps property in the first place.
Three law enforcement officials told Dupps no crime had occurred, Rosen said. Yet, Dupps proceeded to get arrest warrants for the Klippels from a Hilton Head Island judge and sought out his brother-in-law, a special prosecutor in the 14th Circuit Solicitor's office at the time, to prosecute the case, Rosen said.
Rosen suggested to jurors that Dupps should pay $10 million in damages for "seeking revenge on the Klippels" and subsequently causing them great distress. Along with time spent in jail and resulting stress, the ordeal temporarily prevented Jennifer Klippel from adopting a child, according to testimonies.
Throughout her closing argument, Sharp asked the jury not to "confuse the issues" at hand and reminded them that Dupps considered his turkeys pets that were wrongfully taken from him -- even after he tried to work through the problems with the Klippels.
"We learn early on that if you have a problem with someone, you should confront them," Sharp said. "This whole mess could have been prevented if they would have acted as neighbors should."
Dupps has 10 days to file an appeal in the case, Sharp said.