By JOHN MONK
MANNING - Be sure you’re correct when you call someone a registered sex offender.
LIke, really sure.
A Clarendon County jury awarded $890,000 in damages to a man who his fellow condominium owners – all on the condominium’s governing board – repeatedly and wrongly identified him as a registered sex offender listed on the S.C. Sex Offender Registry.
The jury finding — $550,000 in actual damages and $340,000 in punitive damages — was one of the highest in years in Clarendon County, said county clerk of court Beulah Roberts, who sat through the four-day trial last week.
“There have been some higher awards, but not many,” said Roberts, clerk of court since 1995.
The damages will go to James E. King, who owned two condominium units in the Santee Resort complex, in the Santee community near Lake Marion and the Orangeburg County line.
Board association members had circulated a flyer from the S.C. Sex Offender Registry website about a registered offender named William James King. The flyer, printed from the website, had an old photograph of William James King Jr., along with the information that he had been convicted of committing a lewd act upon a child.
As they circulated the flyer, some board members wrongly told people that the King in the flyer was the same King who owned property in the condominium complex, according to evidence in the trial.
One Santee Resort board member even called King’s bank in Orangeburg — where he had taken out a mortgage — and told the loan officer that King was a sex offender, according to trial evidence.
“It was totally the wrong man — not only is James King not a sex offender, he doesn’t even have a criminal record,” said attorney Shaun Kent of Manning, who represented James King along with Jason Daigle of the Maybank law firm in Charleston.
The board members were dissatisfied with James King’s failure to pay monthly dues on time and to make voluntary contributions to the upkeep of the complex, according to legal papers.
Kent said there were passing similarities between the two Kings — both were white, and on the short side in height, for example.
But the sex offender had a full head of hair and a moustache, and the non-criminal King did not.
Most important, Kent said, everyone shown the flyer who knew King told the condominium board members that wasn’t the plaintiff.
“But they kept showing it anyway,” Kent said.
One other difference — his client is married and has two children, Kent said.
Both plaintiff King and his wife testified at trial, along with some six other plaintiff’s witnesses.
Kent said the trial verdict holds a lesson for everyone.
“There are certain names you just can’t call people, unless you truly check your facts,” Kent said. “It’s beyond reprehensible that someone would call someone else a sex offender without really knowing that they are.”
Freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution does allow someone to call someone else a sex offender, but only if the assertion is correct.
“Truth is the ultimate defense,” Kent said. “If it’s true, it’s true.”
Since the two condominium owners named as defendants in the lawsuit were members of the board, it is the board — and not the individuals — that is responsible for paying off the jury award, Kent said he told the jury during trial.
Two lawyers who represented the condominium board — Jake Kennedy of Florence and William Johnson of Manning — declined comment Thursday. The two represent the association and board members Leah Londeree and James Kinser.
“No comment at this time,” Kennedy said.
Defense lawyers have until Monday to file any post-trial motions, including a notice of appeal.