In a significant triumph for Headwaters Hounds (CO), for Master and huntsman Alison Brown, and for the sport of mounted foxhunting itself, a Colorado jury found in favor of the hunt on three separate matters at the conclusion of a jury trial in Chaffee County last week. First, the jurors determined that the hunt did not constitute a legal nuisance, as alleged by neighbors Chris Vely and Laura Barton. Second, in a countersuit brought by Brown, the jury found that Vely and Barton had defamed Brown in online and print materials and awarded her damages, along with additional damages to the hunt itself for economic and other harm. Finally, the jury concluded that hunt activities meet the requirements of Colorado law to be considered an agricultural operation.
While the court's final order has yet to be entered - and Vely and Barton have a window of time in which to file an appeal - these jury findings represent a positive outcome to a lengthy dispute initiated by Brown's neighbors two years ago. Headwaters Hounds had already been in operation as an MFHA-recognized pack prior to Vely and Barton moving onto a neighboring parcel.
Vely and Barton originally filed suit against Brown alleging that the noise of hounds in kennels constituted a civil nuisance. As reported by the Ark Valley Voice, the jury heard evidence that Vely and Barton actually baited wild animals onto their property adjacent to the kennels and played recorded sounds to provoke hounds. Jurors found Headwaters Hounds' operations did not constitute a nuisance.
Brown brought a counterclaim against Vely and Barton for defamation. Vely and Barton created a petition on the website, Change.org, that claimed that "cubhunting" or "cubbing" involves deliberately killing juvenile animals, and asserting that Brown and Headwaters Hounds engaged in this activity. In addition to the online petition, which was widely circulated, Vely and Barton repeated these false accusations in print leaflets they distributed locally. The jury found that these inaccurate characterizations of cubhunting constituted defamation of character.
The jurors continued to determine what damages Brown and Headwaters Hounds had suffered as a result of the defamatory statements online and in print. They awarded $350,000 to Brown for defamation and $3,800 for personal security costs she incurred in response to threatening messages. The jury also awarded Headwaters Hounds $147,553 for non-economic damages and $54,000 for economic damages from the petition and flier after the hunt lost revenue when it had to suspend membership events.
Finally, the jury also considered whether Headwaters Hounds' activities met the requirements to be considered an "agricultural operation" under Colorado law. After hearing testimony and examining the specific statutory language, including in part "the science and art of production of plants and animals useful to man, including to a variable extent, the preparation of these products for man’s use," the jury found that the hunt was an agricultural operation.
Members of the foxhunting community who testified in support of Brown and Headwaters Hounds included former MFHA Executive Director Dennis Foster, longtime Arapahoe Hunt (CO) member Pamela Buffington, and fellow foxhunter DJ Jefferis, along with local farmers and landowners.
The MFHA will provide a more extensive reaction to this verdict in the near future.
To read additional reporting of the case, please visit the Ark Valley Voice website.