Sea Pines' security chief and property owners association have lost round one in an attempt to get a new trial and overturn a $6 million verdict against them.
Judge Carmen Mullen, who presided over the trial for a Hilton Head Island judge's defamation lawsuit, rejected assertions that the amount is "grossly excessive."
Lawyers for George Breed and Sea Pines Community Services Associates Inc. will try again, asking the S.C. Court of Appeals to take up the case.
Meanwhile, Breed went on a leave of absence after the trial, and he no longer works for Sea Pines security, according to a CSA board member.
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A Beaufort County jury sided with Municipal Judge Maureen Coffey in June. Coffey accused CSA and Breed of harassing and defaming her and her family during an investigation of break-ins in 2004 and 2008, in which her brother was a suspect.
The jury awarded Coffey $2 million for defamation, $4 million in punitive damages, and $6,050 in compensation for counseling and baby-sitting expenses.
CSA attorney Andrew Halio argued in court filings that the $4 million in punitive damages is so excessive it violates Breed's right to due process. Halio asked the total amount be reduced to $192,050. Failing that, he asked for a new trial, alleging Mullen prejudiced the jury against CSA and Breed with several erroneous rulings.
Mullen rejected those claims.
"I find the verdict is supported by the evidence and no alleged error of law," Mullen wrote in her Oct. 15 ruling.
Coffey had 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 that by doing so, Breed and CSA made malicious, false statements about Coffey. Mullen agreed.
Halio argues Breed's complaint contains "opinions and fair comments about a public official" that are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment and which Breed believed were true.Halio also denies that Coffey's reputation was damaged as a result. Coffey received a raise from $85,600 to $87,000 a year when her contract with the town was renewed in 2011.
Mullen, however, says testimony from current and former town officials and Sea Pines Resort president Steve Birdwell justify Coffey's $2 million compensation for "injury to her reputation, embarrassment, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering and wounded feelings."
She also argues testimony from psychologist Lynn Geiger, who treated Coffey between December 2007 and June 2011, supports payment for therapy bills and additional baby-sitting services required for stress-related headaches.
"There is adequate evidence that the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery or deceit, rather than mere accident," Mullen wrote.Breed no longer works for Sea Pines, according to CSA board member Craig Ostergard, president of Sea Pines Real Estate.
A CSA organizational chart dated Oct. 8 also does not list Breed as its security chief.
Ostergard and fellow CSA board member Cary Corbitt, Sea Pines director of sports and operations, referred questions about Breed to CSA executive vice president Cary Kelley and board president Bob Mang. Attempts Friday to reach Breed, Kelley and Mang were unsuccessful