As the call for political activism has grown louder and wider in the past few years, most of us have seen or heard people urging us to call our political representatives to let them know how we feel about certain issues. But what if doing so could land you in court for defamation?
That’s what happened to Maggy Hurchalla, a long-time environmental activist who served as Martin County’s first female commissioner from 1974 to 1994 when she lost to a candidate who was heavily backed by developers.
Hurchalla has spent most of her life fighting to protect the Florida environment from developers. In the 20 years she spent as a county commissioner, growth and development did happen, but as Hurchalla put it, it happened slowly, “sanely”, and in a way that would not have a negative impact on Florida’s environment.
In 2008, Lake Point, a rock-mining company, bought 2,200 acres of what used to be sugar cane fields in Martin County, not far from Lake Okeechobee. Lake Point wanted to mine for limestone and use the leftover pits to store and clean polluted lake water, which would otherwise be flushed down the St. Lucie Estuary and contribute to toxic algae blooms, which are already a problem. The project was approved by both Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District.
That all sounds like a good thing for the environment, but according to Hurchalla, she became troubled when, a few years later, the company offered to sell that water to the city of West Palm Beach. Hurchalla and Martin County officials were not convinced that the plan would really benefit the environment.
Hurchalla promptly started emailing county commissioners, discouraging them from pursuing the plan with Lake Point. She argued that the plan would destroy Florida’s wetlands and pointed out that there was no peer-reviewed study that had examined the effects on restoration plans for the downstream everglades.
Oddly enough, Lake Point used the same lack of studies conducted on the issue in their argument accusing Hurchalla of defamation.
After the plan fell through, Lake Point sued Hurchalla for defamation and sued several county commissioners for keeping improper records. When emailing them to discourage them from going along with the plan, Hurchalla had used the personal email addresses of some of the county commissioners, and some of those emails had been deleted.
Three commissioners were charged in criminal court, but one was acquitted by the jury and the other two had their charges dropped by the state attorney.
Hurchalla was not so lucky. Lake Point successfully sued her for defaming them and deliberately interfering in their business affairs with the intention of preventing them from making money. Despite Hurchalla’s argument that the lawsuit violated her right to freedom of speech, the jury sided with Lake Point and ordered Hurchalla to pay the company $4.4 million.
Hurchalla appealed the decision to a Florida court of appeals, which upheld the decision against her, and then to the Fourth District Court of Appeals, which declined to hear the case. Hurchalla could still appeal her case to the Florida Supreme Court, but there’s no word yet on whether she will do so, and if she does, whether they’ll agree to hear the case.
Lubin Austermuehle’s defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Oak Park have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state defamation, libel and slander laws. We assist businesses and owners who are the victims of defamatory and slanderous attacks on their businesses and reputations.
You can read the Court’s entire opinion here.
Our Dupage County defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to post on Facebook, Yelp and other websites information that criticizes businesses and addresses matters of public concern. You can view a federal court decision where we prevailed in a libel per se claim asserting the innocent infringer defense here. Here you can find an arbitration decision where we successfully defended our client’s right to post negative opinions on YouTube about a used car dealer. We recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit concerning our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16,000,000.00 defamation per se suit in federal district court.
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