Judge Tosses Laura Watson's Defamation Suit

, Daily Business Review


Laura M. Watson
Laura M. Watson

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko threw out a 5-year-old defamation lawsuit brought by Broward Circuit Judge Laura Watson against a Miami law firm that won a judgment against her.

The firm of Stewart Tilghman Fox & Bianchi and attorneys Larry Stewart, Todd Stewart and William Hearon were sued by Watson after Palm Beach Circuit Judge David Crow entered a $1 million judgment against her. He found her law firm was unjustly enriched by its participation in a secret $14.5 million settlement with Progressive Insurance.

Watson's firm was one of three personal injury protection law firms that initiated a quasi class action against Progressive to recoup money allegedly owed to the medical providers of auto accident victims. The PIP attorneys brought in the Stewart Tilghman team to handle bad faith claims.

After Crow's decision, Larry Stewart was quoted in a 2008 Daily Business Review article saying, "They were screwing us, and they were screwing the doctors out of settlement money. We sued them for screwing us."

Watson objected to the comment and sued in Broward Circuit Court for defamation, abuse of process and malicious prosecution. Her lawsuit claimed Crow exonerated her because the judgment was against her firm and not her personally.

Watson was elected to the bench in November 2012, escaping a Florida Bar finding of probable cause that would have led to a full ethics inquiry if she had stayed in private practice.

On Feb. 12, the state Judicial Qualifications Commission concluded a three-day ethics trial examining her role in the 2004 settlement. Watson never paid the judgment, but she testified during the trial that she spent $800,000 defending herself.

While the JQC was preparing for trial, Stewart Tilghman filed a motion to strike Watson's causes of action "as a sham." Chief Broward Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein moved the case to Miami-Dade.

In Butchko's order Thursday, she reviewed Crow's judgment and Watson's claim that "she successfully defended and defeated an action" and "was exonerated of all wrongdoing"

"The court finds that Ms. Watson's allegations to that effect are false and untrue," Butchko said.

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