Feb. 16 (UPI) -- A Florida jury on Wednesday decided that an environmentalist activist must pay more than $4 million to a development company for interfering with a business deal it had with local government officials.
Maggie Hurchalla, 77, was sued in Florida state court in 2013 for allegedly making false statements to persuade officials with Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District that led to a breach of contract with the owners of Lake Point, a development company conducting a mining and water treatment in Lake Okeechobee.
Hurchalla, who is the sister of now deceased former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, was opposed to the Lake Point project because she believed it would damage South Florida's wetlands. Lake Point said Hurchalla made several false statements regarding the company's project, including that it would destroy 60 acres of wetlands and was the proposal was hidden to avoid public knowledge, according to the 2013 lawsuit.
In closing arguments on Wednesday, In closing arguments, Ethan Loeb, the attorney for Lake Point, said Hurchalla's statements were demonstrably false.
"These wetlands have been enhanced and these wetlands have been improved. None of them have been destroyed," Loeb said, according to WPTV.
Hurchalla's attorneys argued that she had a First Amendment right to give her opinion about the Lake Point project to government officials.
"Citizens have a right to communicate with our elected officials. They have a duty," Hurchalla's attorney, Virginia Sherlock, told the jury.
She added: "The 'right to gripe', to petition your government, is found right next to the right to free speech. That's how important it is; it's part of the First Amendment."
But Loeb argued that Hurchalla's speech was not constitutionally protected.
"Nobody in this court, in Martin County has the right to tell lies -- that's not First Amendment-protected speech," Loeb said, according to TC Palm.
The jury only took 90 minutes to agree with Loeb and awarded Lake Point more than $4 million in damages.
Sunshine State News reported that Lake Point's original suit, which included Martin County as a defendant, claimed $22 million in damages. Martin County already paid $18 million in an earlier settlement. The jury decided that Hurchalla must pay the rest. amounting to $4,391,708.