An order by the S.C. Supreme Court chief justice has moved forward more than 20 lawsuits filed against a Hilton Head Island timeshare company.
Chief Justice Jean Toal decided this month to send 25 pending and all future cases against Coral Resorts to Circuit Court Judge Ernest Kinard, according to the order.
She wrote that pushing the lawsuits to one judge would allow for faster, more efficient and "uniform" rulings.
S.C. Supreme Court director Rosalyn Frierson said it is not unusual for the chief justice to assign a group of lawsuits to a single judge.
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"It is an administrative function and part of her job," she said.
In the lawsuits, owners allege they were misled by the company, which operates Port O'Call at Shipyard Plantation, Island Links, Coral Sands and Coral Reef resorts. Many assert they were deceived by sales pitches and signed contracts that didn't reflect what they were told.
A team of attorneys for Coral Resorts, including Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin, wanted the lawsuits to be heard in a newly formed business court, established to ease the load on Circuit Court. It generally manages disputes between businesses. A lawsuit needs the chief justice's approval before it can be sent to that court, according to the S.C. Judicial Department's website.
On Friday, Nekki Shutt, lead attorney for Coral Resorts, said there is "no substantive difference" between the business and Circuit Court, and she's "looking forward to trying the cases as soon as possible."
"We continue to believe these cases have no merit," she said.
Hilton Head attorneys Zach Naert and Joe DuBois, who represent owners in at least 17 cases against Coral Resorts, said they were pleased with the chief justice's decision to move the case to Circuit Court rather than the business court.
The cases against Coral aren't business-to-business disputes but "consumer fraud lawsuits," they said in an emailed statement.
On Friday, Judge Kinard held a hearing in Beaufort to schedule the court cases. During the hearing, Shutt objected to the media's presence because sealed files might be discussed, and Kinard removed an Island Packet reporter.
In a telephone interview Friday evening, Kinard reasoned that the hearing was "administrative" and that no information important to the cases was discussed. He held firm that he had the right to eject a reporter from his courtroom.
During the proceedings, Kinard scheduled several motions to be heard at 9:30 a.m. June 5.
Naert and DuBois' law firm have butted heads with Coral Resorts before.
In December, the timeshare company sued the law firm over its alleged use of Coral's registered trademarks to generate hits on the law firm's website.
The company accused the law firm of purchasing keywords related to the resorts through search engines such as Google. Those purchases drive the law firm's website to the top of the list when the resorts are searched, the federal complaint said.
The resorts lost business because potential customers were led to assume there was an affiliation between the law firm and the timeshares, according to the lawsuit.
Naert and DuBois' motion to dismiss the suit is pending, according to federal court records.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.