HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — A jury in South Carolina awarded $50 million in damages to a mayor in a defamation case against a longtime critic.
The Beaufort County jury decided Thursday that Skip Hoagland has to pay Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka $40 million in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages, The Island Packet reported.
Hoagland — who wasn’t in the courtroom throughout the trial or when the verdicts were read — laughed when the newspaper informed him of the outcome.
“That’s a joke, right? … That’s insanity,” he said.
Sulka filed the lawsuit against Hoagland over emails he sent in 2015 and 2017 to several people including the state attorney general. The mayor claimed there were defamatory statements in the messages, such as accusations that she committed a crime and was unfit for office.
“An examination of the Defendant’s rambling and at times incoherent emails can lead to only one conclusion: the Defendant had every reason to know that his statements lacked veracity, yet he continued to publish them with vigor,” Sulka’s lawyers wrote in a 2019 court filing.
During the two-day trial, the mayor described the impacts these messages have had on her: “It really hits your psyche, it really affects you. I am his target now, personally.”
Hoagland has frequently and vocally critiqued the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, which some elected officials have spoken out against for its failure to share how it spends public money.
Daniel Henderson, one of the mayor’s attorneys, said Hoagland started a “crusade” against Sulka after the town helped the Chamber of Commerce with a membership drive in 2015. Her lawyers said in a filing that Hoagland believed the drive “unfairly benefitted” the Hilton Head chamber at the expense of the Greater Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
“Mayor Sulka, I hope you fully understand the severity of this as a public official if this is true on using public funds to attempt to put one business out of business,” Hoagland wrote in a 2015 email to the mayor, town attorney, state attorney general, lawmakers and others.
The following year, he filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission against the mayor, claiming she voted in favor of land purchases that financially benefitted the real estate agency where she worked. The commission eventually cleared her of allegations that she violated the state ethics law.
Sulka’s lawyers argued in the lawsuit that the “defamatory statements” were published with malice and hurt the mayor’s reputation.
Hoagland — who represented himself in the case after firing a lawyer that his insurance company hired — shared his thoughts with the trial judge, the attorney general and others by email instead of participating in the proceedings in person.
“There is zero evidence I defamed anyone,” Hoagland wrote Wednesday night. “The first amendment allows me to exercise my free speech rights to criticize, and shed light on, public corruption.”
He told The Island Packet in a statement Thursday that he was actually happy with the trial’s outcome because it proved there’s “more corruption” in South Carolina.
“This case was all predetermined, a sham, Judicial Malfeasance … I will now seek damages for violations to my First Amendment Rights caused by this lawless, filthy, frivolous defamation lawsuit to silence a critics voice,” he wrote.
For copyright information, check with the distributor of this item, The Island Packet.