A Hilton Head Island judge is defending a $6 million award she won against Sea Pines and its former security chief in recently filed court papers.
Municipal Court Judge Maureen Coffey filed her response Oct. 25 and said the award resulting from her June 2012 defamation lawsuit should stand. The losers in the case -- Sea Pines Community Services Associates Inc. and George Breed -- have until Dec. 4 to submit their next briefs, and a S.C. Court of Appeals ruling is still likely months away.
Coffey sued CSA and Breed in 2008, claiming they defamed her by sending copies of a judicial complaint against her to town and Sea Pines officials. That letter accused her of acting with "bias and partiality" in cases before her, words that amounted to malicious, false statements, her suit said.
In their initial appeals, filed in April, CSA and Breed argued that their distribution of the letter was protected under the law because Coffey is a public official. Ruling in her favor -- and with such an excessive judgment -- would likely silence others who wish to report wrongdoing by judges, the appeal states.
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The attorneys assert they also received prejudicial treatment during the trial that might have biased the jury.
In one instance, the jury was allowed to review a CSA financial statement that was never formally admitted to the record, denying the defendants a chance to explain it to jurors, the appeal states.
When Breed's attorneys objected, Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen said, "Okay. Never mind. I am going to let it in," the appeal states.
The jury then awarded Coffey nearly as much money as was available in a reserve fund detailed by the financial statement -- $2 million for defamation, $4 million in punitive damages, and $6,050 in compensation for counseling and baby-sitting expenses.
In another instance during the June 2012 trial, Mullen expressed concern that the defendants "insisted" Coffey had to prove actual malice, meaning someone acted with reckless disregard for the truth, Breed's appeal states. Mullen said actual malice was "a hard burden for (Coffey) to prove. And so, I don't want to tie their hands," it states.
In their response to the appeal, Coffey's attorneys say her award was appropriate. They also say that Breed's lawyers forfeited their chance to raise several issues with the June 2012 trial when they failed to report their concerns to Mullen following the verdict.
Coffey's response argues that the trial was fair and proved Coffey's reputation was damaged by CSA and Breed. Both were wrong to share Breed's complaint, which was meant to remain confidential, the response states.
Representatives for Coffey, Breed and CSA declined to comment Thursday. Attempts Thursday to reach Coffey and Breed, who is no longer CSA's security chief, were unsuccessful.
Since February 2009, Coffey has not heard cases related to Sea Pines in Municipal Court because of the litigation. Beaufort County Magistrate Terry Finger has been hearing most of those cases, according to Hilton Head assistant town manager Greg DeLoach.
After the appeal is settled, Coffey can seek an opinion from the S.C. Supreme Court as to whether she should hear those cases, DeLoach said. The decision, however, will be up to her.
"In my opinion, I think she could hear cases," DeLoach said. "I don't believe that it presents an issue going forward."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.