A Cherokee County jury ordered Tea Party Patriots Inc. and one of its members the ex-husband of the group's president to pay a man $833,000 for pseudonymous comments asserting he was a "child molester."
In addition to finding the statement's author, Lee Martin, and the activist group liable for damages, the jury also found the Tea Party Patriots acted in bad faith or were stubbornly litigious, teeing up additional litigation by plaintiff James Lyle to recover some of his attorney fees.
The verdict is the latest twist in a long-running suit that spun out of a bitter fight between the Tea Party Patriots and a former board member who joined rival group Tea Party Express in 2009. Martin was formerly married to Tea Party Patriots co-founder and president, Jenny Beth Martin.
The attorneys for the plaintiff, Jon Pope of Hasty Pope and J. Matthew Maguire Jr. of Parks, Chesin & Walbert, said the defendants offered to settle for $300,000 shortly after the suit was filed in 2011, but later withdrew the offer while it was under consideration. The highest defense offer just before trial was $50,000.
Martin's attorney, Ken Hodges Law principal Ken Hodges, did not have permission to discuss the case in detail.
"We're assessing our options with regard to an appeal," said Hodges. "Matt Maguire and Jon Pope did a fantastic job, but we certainly don't agree with the jury's decision."
Tea Party Patriots, through their attorneys Deborah Ausburn and Amanda Hyland of Taylor English Duma, issued a written statement Tuesday.
"This litigation has been going on since 2011 and for reasons that will become obvious, we are evaluating our legal options," the Tea Party Patriots said. "Since this is ongoing litigation, we will have no further comment on this matter."
According to court filings, Lyle was the live-in boyfriend of Amy Kremer, a onetime Tea Party Patriots board member, when both became involved with the upstart Tea Party Express in early 2009. Concerns about Kremer's "judgment and motives" led to her being voted off the board that September, and Tea Party Express subsequently sued Kremer in Cobb County, accusing her of retaining the group's intellectual property and email lists.
As described in defense filings, the feuding groups spawned a social media war as "members on both sides of the controversies vociferously voiced their opinions" about the groups' origins and intellectual property, including "a long string of harsh and biting criticisms during an angry Facebook debate between clearly antagonistic and opposing political factions."
On Oct. 5, 2010, Lee Martin, who had served as executive secretary for Tea Party Patriots, posted a message on a private Facebook page under the name "Dale Butterworth." He urged readers to "ask Amy" why her daughter had accused Lyle of raping her and why she "kicked her daughter out of the house."
"Would you side with a child molester over your own daughter just to keep a roof over your head?" the post read.
According to defense filings, Martin "deleted the post approximately 20 minutes later, and there is no evidence that anyone believed it."
In 2011 Lyle sued Tea Party Patriots Inc., Lee Martin and Jenny Beth Martin for libel and slander in Cherokee County Superior Court. Jenny Beth Martin was subsequently dismissed from the suit.
According to court filings, Lyle argued Martin's Facebook statement constituted libel per se because he either knew it was false when he made it or because he acted with reckless disregard for its falsity. The Tea Party Patriots were accused of vicarious liability because Martin was acting in the scope of his duties with the organization when he posted the statement.
The case went to trial on June 19 before Judge David Cannon Jr.
Martin's defense filings point to the short time the post was online and asserted he "believed it was true, because Ms. Kremer had told him those facts. When he looked at court records online, he found a sealed record of a domestic violence petition filed against James Lyle."
Kremer's daughter "in fact had reported to the police that Lyle had abused her," said his portion of the pretrial order.
Tea Party Patriots argued that Martin was a "volunteer, and had no responsibility for social postings," and "agreed that he made the post purely in his individual capacity," the order said.
Maguire said the defense's claims concerning the police report had nothing to do with any alleged sexual assault and stemmed from a 2003 incident when the child's parents were going through a divorce, and was "totally recanted. The defendants had never even seen the report before the litigation began."
Pope said he asked for $1 million in closing statements.
On June 26, the jury took about three hours to return an $833,000 verdict.
Pope and Maguire said they spoke briefly to the jury.
"They told us that they spent very little time on the issue of whether the post was defamatory, and not a lot on Lee Martin's acting in the interest of Tea Party Patriots," Pope said. "Mostly, it was what the appropriate amount would be; they said it ranged from $1 million to $2.5 million, but at the end of the day that was what everybody was comfortable with.
The panel also affirmed that Tea Party Patriots acted in bad faith, was stubbornly litigious or caused Lyle "unnecessary trouble and expense," but it did not find that Martin had done so.
"That was interesting," Maguire said. "I am just speculating, but we argued that the Tea Party Patriots had hand-picked the original lawyer for the author of the post, therefore this litigation was all-TPP, all the time. I think they bought that."
The lawyers said they were constrained in further discussion because of the pending litigation on attorney fees and because they also represent Amy Kremer in a separate libel suit against the same defendants over the Facebook posting. That case is also pending in Cherokee County.