The jury returned shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, July 13, and issued a verdict in 11th District Court in favor of Alison Brown, awarding her and Headwaters Hounds LLC combined more than $555,000 in damages. The jury found for Brown in all three areas in which they were to make a decision: the Chris Vely and Laura Barton noise compliant against Brown, Brown’s counterclaim of defamation and whether or not Brown was operating an agricultural operation on her property.
“I am absolutely thrilled that the jury ruled in our favor in all points,” said Brown. “The whole situation has been an absolute nightmare.”
District Judge Patrick Murphy reviewed the findings of the jury, going through each of the three areas of jury deliberation. Regarding the noise nuisance claim filed by Vely and Barton, the jury found that they had not proved the truth of their claims against Brown or Headwaters Hounds LLC. In fact, evidence presented during trial suggests the Vely’s incited Brown’s foxhounds to bark by attracting wildlife with scented lures and by playing recordings that triggered the hounds to bark.
Regarding the counterclaim of defamation, the judge found that, by legal definition, Brown had been defamed and instructed the jury to determine the amount of damages. The Vely’s created a Change.org petition containing untrue information about foxhunting, alleging animal cruelty. They also created a flier handed out at the 2016 Salida Parade of Lights containing that same information about Brown and Headwaters Hounds LLC.
The jury awarded $150,000 to Brown for defamation caused by the Change.org petition and $200,000 for defamation resulting from the flier. It awarded $1,900 each from Vely and Barton in damages for Brown’s security costs incurred in response to hate messages, including a death threat from a local resident in response to the petition.
The jury also awarded damages to Headwaters Hounds LLC: $77,553 in non-economic damage from the Change.org petition, $70,000 for non-economic reputational damage from the flier and $27,000 each, for economic damage from the petition and the flier, resulting in lost revenue to the club when it was forced to shut down membership activities.
“It was clear that the jury realized the severity of the defamation against Dr. Brown. The best evidence of this was their award of $350,000 in damages for falsely accusing Dr. Brown of cruel hunting practices in the Change.org petition and for passing out defamatory fliers at the 2016 Parade of Lights in Salida,” said Brown’s attorney, Charlie Cain of Cain & Skarnulis PLLC. “They obviously also sided with her foxhunting club, Headwaters Hounds, by awarding it over $200,000 in damages as well.”
In determining fault for Vely and Barton’s defamatory actions, the jury assigned 60 percent to Vely and 40 percent to Barton for the petition and 70 percent to Vely and 30 percent to Barton for the flier.
“My sense is that the jury would also like to see retractions posted for these defamatory comments, both locally and on the Change.org platform,” said Cain.
The jury was also asked to rule on whether or not Brown was operating an agricultural operation. It affirmed Brown’s defense of her activities at 11600 Antelope Road as an agricultural operation, confirming that she and Headwaters Hounds LLC had provided the elements of a statutory defense.
“I’m happy that the jury sided with local farmers and ranchers by determining that predator control, particularly control of coyotes, is a useful activity in Colorado and that foxhunting clubs, which really just chase off coyotes, serve such a purpose,” said Cain.
Brown said she is glad that a decision has finally been reached. “What was most frustrating to me is that all of the efforts that I made, nothing was going to satisfy my neighbors. Throughout the trial the evidence had become clear that nothing would have ever satisfied them. They have been determined through any means to shut me down and drag me off my property.”
Murphy, prior to reading the verdict and perhaps mindful of the intense opinions the case has generated in the community, cautioned those present not to react emotionally. “This jury has worked exceptionally hard and have performed their civic duty well.”
After the verdicts were read, Murphy issued another caution to the jury. “If anyone becomes critical of your decisions, you are to report that to me. You have the thanks of the district court system for your service to this community.”
Although it was the Vely’s who had requested a jury trial, not Brown, she said it restored her faith in the U.S. justice system. “This was the only forum where I was going to be able to reach an equitable resolution. My faith in the jury’s decision has validated my faith that justice would prevail, and I am extremely grateful to the citizens of Chaffee County, especially those that served on the jury, for their participation in this key constitutional process. Their diligence in seeking out the truth and their decision to award these significant damages are a major step in helping to restore my reputation.”
Cain said, “I have profound respect for what Dr. Brown does for this community. Whether it is STEM programs for young ladies, or the restorative justice program, I felt like Dr. Brown had a reputation in this community that was deserving of respect and protection. The jury felt the same way.”