(CN) - The owner of a Texas exotic game ranch can collect $100,000 from a former ranch hand who made spurious claims to ranch clients, telling one that the owner's son had shot and killed a Mexican transient on the property, a state appeals court ruled.
Dell Cullum left Diamond A Ranch in August 2006 after working there for about a year as a ranch hand. Though Cullum testified that he once thought of ranch owner Darlene White as a second mother, he filed a federal copyright lawsuit that claimed the company was using his photographs of the ranch without permission.
White's son, Damon, testified, however, that he removed Cullum's photographs from the ranch website the same month Cullum left. Damon runs the ranch's hunting operation.
When Cullum sent a series of emails to Diamond A Ranch clients, White countered with a libel lawsuit.
In an email to Roger Racklin, who owns a company that films hunting and fishing shows, Cullum said he left the ranch because Damon had a "severe drinking issue" and was a "pathological liar."
He insinuated that the White family could be federally charged for using his copyrighted photos and that the FBI had flagged Damon for possible "terrorist activity." Cullum said he had taped evidence of Damon admitting to shooting and killing a Mexican transient on the ranch.
The email also attacked the authenticity of ranch hunts, saying that the ranch uses domesticated deer and pigs Cullum had to rile up to create the illusion of sport.
Cullum also emailed Donald Thacker, who had a TV show on the Sportsman Channel called Big Timber Trails Outdoors, and Feather Flage, a company that sells hunting clothing. After Cullum accused them of copyright infringement, Thacker stopped featuring Diamond A Ranch on his show, and Feather Flage backed out of an arrangement to provide the ranch with free clothing and website promotion.
Cullum also created a website DiamondAlcoholicRanch.com, touting "a fictional tale of the most bizarre ranch in America."
Under a "coming soon" banner, the website said it would present "The Claims - The Crimes - The Proof" about "Drugs - Murder - Militia - Terrorism," "The Cowboy in a Woman's Body - The Piranha Girl - The Crazy Mexican," "And the Evil that Rules it All!"
After a judge in Real County's 38th Judicial District Court gave White a permanent injunction against Cullum, a jury subsequently awarded White $200,000 for defamation.
Though the San Antonio-based Fourth Court of Appeals agreed that the emails and website support the finding of libel, the justices struck out the jury's award of exemplary damages because one of the 12 jurors did not find that all of Cullum's conduct was defamatory. Cullum still must pay $100,000 for mental anguish and damage to White's reputation.
"White testified that she felt Cullum's emails were an assault on everything she was," Justice Sandee Bryan Marion wrote for the four-member panel.
"She was extremely concerned that her peers in the industry she spent forty-six years developing would see the posting," the 23-page decision states. "She testified it 'tore' her apart to think anyone in the industry would see the posting. She testified she was concerned about damage to her reputation and to her family. White said her energy level was diminished and found she had trouble focusing after Cullum's publications. White testified Cullum's assault on her reputation 'broke [her] heart;' and her sense of trust in people was 'almost destroyed.' White testified her family reputation and her own reputation are extremely important to her. ... She testified further that she cut herself off from her friends due to this lawsuit, and the isolation has been lonely.
"Damon testified his mother was obsessed with Cullum's accusations and would rehash events," the decision continues. "He said White isolated herself and he confirmed that her energy level declined after she learned about the emails and the webpage. Damon said his mother was unable to concentrate and lost interest in the ranch."
Cullum must also pay White $2,000 in attorneys' fees for posting online about her and the ranch in violation of a temporary injunction, but the justices threw out the trial court's entry of a permanent injunction as a sanction.
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