Sierra Club, ACLU rally forces to fight $4.4 million verdict awarded to billionaire
(Photo: Christopher Arnold, The (Stuart, Fla.) News)

STUART, Fla. — A coalition of powerful organizations as well as two former U.S. deputy attorneys general are rallying behind a 77-year-old environmental activist and sister of Janet Reno, the late Clinton administration attorney general, in her fight against a $4.4 million jury award that they say stifles her free-speech rights.

Maggy Hurchalla's case affects every person who wants to hold elected officials accountable, and the appeal of her civil liability is critically important, said President Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. The coalition, which also includes the Sierra Club and American Civil Liberties Union, filed a brief Sept. 21 in the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, Florida, supporting Hurchalla's right to criticize the government.

"If Maggy wins — and I think she will — people and companies … will think twice about threatening those of us who don't agree with them," Petersen said. "They need to know they can’t stop us simply through intimidation or the threat of a lawsuit.”

Her battle dates to 2013 when Lake Point Restoration, a company that put together a public-private rock-mining and water-treatment project near Lake Okeechobee, sued Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner who left office in the 1990s, for interfering with a contract it had with the county government. The company that Miami billionaire George Lindemann Jr. owns based its case largely on emails Hurchalla sent to elected officials in her fight against the project.

Hurchalla warned officials that the quarry would destroy wetlands and urged them to break the contract.

In February, after five years and some 75,000 pages of court filings, a Martin County Circuit Court jury found Hurchalla liable for contract interference.

The legal team for her appeal includes former U.S. deputy attorneys general David W. Ogden and Jamie S. Gorelick. In joining the case, the organizations supporting Hurchalla told the appeals court that Hurchalla did not receive a fair trial.

The trial court should have required Lake Point's attorneys to prove Hurchalla acted with "ill will, hostility and (the) evil intention to defame and injure" their client, lawyers said in the filing.

Instead, the six-person jury was instructed to find in favor of Lake Point if they believed Hurchalla intentionally lied to commissioners — no matter her motivation with regard to Lake Point.

The friend-of-the-court-brief represents the arguments of eight organizations — the ACLU, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, the First Amendment Foundation, the Florida Press Association, the Florida Society of News Editors, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club — as well as Riviera Beach activist Fane Lozman.

Meanwhile, Lake Point has made it clear that it is serious about collecting the $4.4 million and has doggedly investigated Hurchalla's bank accounts and searched for a copy of her will. In July, Lake Point seized Hurchalla’s 2004 Toyota and two kayaks.

On Thursday, Petersen described the company’s actions as harassment but noted Hurchalla has the rare fortitude to continue fighting.

Hurchalla admits the case has affected her life — though not in the way Lake Point intends, she said.

“I’d rather be kayaking,” Hurchalla said Tuesday. “But how many 77-year-old ladies get to defend the First Amendment? I think it’s an honor.”

The support she's received feels "absolutely wonderful," Hurchalla said.

“This morning I found a kayak in my front yard with a note that said, ‘To Maggy, from the people who love you,” Hurchalla said. “The point of a (lawsuit like Lake Point’s) is to make the victim miserable and to scare other people. So far, they have not made me miserable, and they certainly don’t seem to have scared people.”

Follow Lisa Broadt on Twitter: @LisaBroadt

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