STUART — A jury in Stuart this afternoon found famed environmentalist Maggy Hurchalla liable for interfering with a business deal between developer Lake Point and Martin County.
A courthouse source said the jury deliberated for about an hour before deciding Hurchalla has to pay $4,391,708 to the company, which is partly owned by Miami philanthropist George Lindemann Jr.
In the verdict, the jury gave Lake Point everything it asked for after Hurchalla refused to settle with the company. Her co-defendants, Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District, agreed to settle last year and paid Lake Point a total $18 million.
Wearing a read jacket over black shirt and pants, Hurchalla sat stoically as the verdict was read.
In the hallway afterwards, she seemed to blame Judge William Roby — even if on the third day of the eight-day trial, Roby called Hurchalla and her lawyers into his private chambers and told them they should consider settling because the jury seemed to sway on the side of Lake Point.
In the wake of today’s verdict, Hurchalla said she is planning to appeal.
“Disappointed,” she said smiling, “but based on the judge’s instructions I can understand. We will appeal. I think the judge made some very bad rulings of law. And any lawyer reading the judge’s instructions to the jury will come to that conclusion.
“And to all those wonderful people who have been supportive, don’t worry, I’m fine. We will overcome.”
Ethan Loeb, Lake Point’s attorney, said the jury believed Hurchalla lied during the trial.
“They thought she did the wrong thing and there are consequences,” Loeb said. “They (the jury) sent a message. You can’t lie.”
Earlier in the day, Roby told the jury it would have to decide whether Hurchalla interfered with a deal that Lake Point reached with Martin County and SFWMD to mine lime rock on a 2,000-acre property near Lake Okeechobee. Lake Point’s plan was then to use the land to store dirty Lake O water.
Roby also told the jury to quantify the award should they find her liable. The jury picked the number that Lake Point used to estimate its damages.
Hurchalla testified she contacted commissioners and encouraged them to get out of the deal because she believed the agreement that Lake Point reached with the government agencies was a bad one, and Lake Point had been destroying wetlands.
On the stand yesterday, Hurchalla admitted she sent dozens of emails to Martin County commissioners Sarah Heard, Ed Fielding and Anne Scott where she instructed them on how to get out of the Lake Point contract. In time, the county stopped cooperating with Lake Point and even cited the company for code violations.
Hurchalla admitted she deleted some of the emails she sent to the commissioners instead of surrendering them to Lake Point lawyers.
In his instructions to the jurors, Roby advised them to consider the deleted email to be unfavorable and a strike against Hurchalla.
In his closing arguments, Lake Point’s Loeb said there was not one smoking gun but several smoking guns.
“She couldn’t do it on her own (shutting down the Lake Point project),” he said. “She had help on the inside. But she operated behind closed doors, in the shadows.”
Loeb said Hurchalla lied about wetlands being destroyed by Lake Point.
“You don’t have a right to lie,” Loeb said, “to interfere with a business. She wanted to get this contract cancelled.”
In her closing arguments, Hurchalla’s lead attorney Virginia Sherlock defended Hurchalla’s actions as the right and privilege of a private citizen to participate in local government.
“She has participated in local government for most of her life,” Sherlock said. “To suggest that Maggy Hurchalla is not a sincere, true advocate for the environment is in contrast to all that you have heard.”