Rancher wins $600K in suit against enviros
In a 9-1 verdict, jurors in Pima County Superior Court awarded Chilton $100,000 for the harm done to his reputation and Arivaca cattle company. The jury tacked on an additional $500,000 in punitive damages meant to punish the center and deter others from committing libel.
Chilton, whose wife, Sue, is chairwoman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, sued the center over material that alleged he mismanaged his 21,500-acre Forest Service allotment, northwest of Nogales.
Many of the center's 21 photos depicted barren patches that captions described as "denuded" by cows. But Chilton's lawyer showed jurors wide-angle photos taken at the same locations that revealed the surroundings as worthy of a postcard, with oaks and mesquites dotting lush, rolling hills.
The center countered that the material it published in July 2002 couldn't be libelous because it was honest opinion. The photos weren't doctored, the center said, and they were public records that were part of its failed bid to block renewal of Chilton's grazing permit.
The center, which is typically the plaintiff in court, will probably appeal the decision, and its insurance should pay for at least some of the damages, if they're upheld, said policy director Kieran Suckling.
"We did things with the best of intentions. If there were some mistakes, they were honest mistakes," he said.
Suckling said he was most worried about the verdict's "chilling effect" on advocacy groups.
"We really feel victimized by a wealthy banker who can afford to hire a large legal team to nitpick you to death," he said.
Chilton, donning a white cowboy hat outside the courtroom, said he doubted he'll be able to collect all the money from the center, which he described as "schoolyard bullies."
"It does not matter if I ever collect a dime. We were in it because it's a righteous, just cause. People have taken too much abuse for too long in this community," he said. "I'm glad our system has a watchdog, and that's the jury system."
Chilton said he'll use the award to pay his lawyers, reimburse himself for costs, then donate what's left over to the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association legal fund so it can "fight for justice."
Chilton, a fifth-generation rancher, said he wants to start a more collaborative relationship with the center and will invite the defendants to visit his ranch to discuss its biodiversity.
Suckling dismissed that invitation as "cynical media spin."
"The only contact Mr. Chilton has ever had with the center is threatening letters from his lawyers going back seven years," he said.
The two-week trial, with 21 witnesses and more than 100 exhibits, featured odes to the ranching lifestyle, plus dry testimony on the labyrinth of public-lands policymaking.
To prove the material was defamatory, Chilton not only had to show it was false and hurt him, but also demonstrate the activists knew they had lied or shown "reckless disregard" for the truth. Such evidence of malice had to be "clear and convincing."
The bar would have been lower had Chilton not been ruled a public figure by Judge Richard Fields. An ordinary citizen would only have to show the center was negligent through a preponderance of the evidence.
Kraig Marton, Chilton's attorney, told jurors in closing arguments Thursday that he'd proved at least four photos weren't even on Chilton's allotment and that the center willfully ignored scientific studies praising Chilton's grazing practices.
"They were out to do harm, out to stop grazing and out to do whatever they can to prevent the Chiltons and others like them from letting cows on public land," Marton said.
Quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin and Warren Buffett, Marton told jurors "our reputation is everything."
"What other people think of you makes you who you are," he said.
Sue Chilton - whose 2001 appointment to the Game and Fish Commission was bitterly opposed by the center and other "green" groups - testified her husband became withdrawn and plagued by insomnia and stomach pain because of the press release. A paid witness for Chilton said the center's scrutiny had cut $200,000 from the value of the allotment he bought for $797,000 in 1991.
Chilton testified that if he were to resell the permit, he'd have to disclose the center's attacks.
"It would be like trying to sell a house that has been subject to systematic terrorist activities by local gangs and not indicating to a potential purchaser that gang hits had been made on your house," he said.
But because the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, Judge Fields instructed jurors they couldn't consider the center's statements libelous if they viewed them as opinions, rather than facts.
"We must enforce the people's right to express their opinion and have public debate over issues," Robert Royal, the center's attorney, told jurors. "That is what makes this country great."
Royal, who called only one witness, told jurors they shouldn't even consider the photos. They were part of the center's written appeal of the grazing permit, and such legislative matters can't be libelous, he said.
The photos didn't show the entire allotment, he said, because the center, like the Forest Service, wanted to focus on problem areas, or "hot spots."
"How can we take a photo to show 21,000 acres?" he said.
As for the release, he said, "we went through every one of those issues and described how those statements were correct."
The juror who didn't vote to award damages said after the trial that the panel's 2 1/2-hour deliberations were cordial.
"I just felt that the center had a right to have their own opinions," said Sam Moore, 55, a pressman for a printer.
To win punitive damages, Chilton had to prove the center acted with an "evil mind," meaning it intended to cause harm, was motivated by "spite or ill will" or acted to serve its "own interest."
The center may have accidentally taken photos of the wrong places, Royal said, but that can't be considered "reckless" if Chilton's own registered surveyor made a similar mistake in creating a map for the trial.
But Marton told jurors they only had to look at the center's anti-grazing agenda and refusal to apologize in court for proof of its contempt toward Chilton and his way of life.
"If you're gonna lie," Marton said, "you have to pay the consequences."
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