Another federal judge faced with interpreting Virginia’s insulting-words statute has found that (1) a face-to-face confrontation is not required, and (2) if the words at issue are defamatory per se, then they automatically satisfy the requirements of the statute. The case is Christen Waddle v. Aundrea Claughton, currently pending in the Danville Division of the Western District of Virginia.

The facts of the case (as alleged in the complaint and recited in an earlier opinion) are essentially as follows. Ms. Waddle was driving down the street minding her own business, when she encountered an emaciated dog (not the one pictured) running loose in the middle of the road. The dog appeared to be in bad shape. It had scratches on its face and its ribs were visible. Feeling sorry for the dog, she decided to scoop it up and take it to Animal Control. She called the number on the dog’s collar but no one answered. She then found the owner’s Facebook page and contacted him through Facebook, letting him know she was taking the dog to Animal Control.

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In a defamation per se case, the jury will be instructed that it may presume damages and award a monetary recovery to the plaintiff even in the absence of any evidence of specific harm caused by the defamatory statements. This goes against the general rule that juries cannot award damages unsupported by the evidence. What’s not entirely clear, however, is how much the jury is permitted to award in such a case. Most courts seem to be of the mind that whatever the jury decides is appropriate to award will be permissible in cases of defamation per se. But suppose that number is vastly out of proportion to the gravity of the offense? If the defendant falsely accused the plaintiff of stealing a pack of gum, can a jury decide to award $500 million to the plaintiff, even in the absence of any evidence of harm to reputation? Well, yes and no. In defamation per se cases, the jury can award whatever amount it decides is warranted–even if there is no evidence at all of actual damages–but if the award is especially unconscionable, the court can strike it down.

Virginia Model Jury Instruction 37.105 (which applies in defamation cases involving presumed damages) simply says “the plaintiff is entitled to recover compensatory damages without any proof of actual or pecuniary injury.” There is no mention of any limits on the amount the jury might award. So as far as the jury is concerned, the sky’s the limit. In Poulston v. Rock, 251 Va. 254, 261 (1996), the court wrote that “even in the absence of any evidence of pecuniary loss, the damages which the injured party is entitled to recover may be substantial.”

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We lawyers like to write about two types of libel and slander: defamation per se, and defamation per quod.  Using Latin terms makes us sound smart, we think.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about. The problem isn’t that the lawyers are stupid, but that the courts use the terms inconsistently (since judges don’t speak Latin any better than lawyers do).

Many lawyers will tell you that defamation per se refers to that heightened level of defamation for claims deemed particularly serious, and that defamation per quod is a fancy term for “everything else.”  This is the most common definition. The “particularly serious” form of libel and slander occurs where a statement:

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Under Virginia law, rhetorical hyperbole is not defamatory. Rhetorical hyperbole refers to statements that–while they may seem at first glance to express factual assertions about a person–cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. To prove defamation, a plaintiff needs to show falsity; rhetorical hyperbole does not literally assert facts, so it is not susceptible of being proven true or false. Therefore, courts treat is as non-actionable opinion.

Another reason rhetorical hyperbole is not considered defamatory is that the law encourages “imaginative expression” in public debate. In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the Supreme Court noted that rhetorical hyperbole has “traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation.” (See 497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990)).

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When a defamatory statement is republished by another person, that person may be held liable to the same extent as the original defamer. I recently wrote about liability for rumor-mongering and focused on the potential liability of the person spreading rumors heard from another source. This month, I want to focus on the potential liability of the source of the defamatory statement, particularly when the statement is made to another under circumstances that make it highly likely the defamatory statement will be shared with a larger audience.

The general rule in Virginia is that the original publisher of a defamatory statement will be liable for republication if repetition of the statement was foreseeable as the natural and probable consequence of the original publication:

It is well settled that the author or originator of a defamation is liable for a republication or repetition thereof by third persons, provided it is the natural and probable consequence of his act, or he has presumptively or actually authorized or directed its republication. This is based upon the principle that such republication constitutes a new cause of action against the original author. However, the original author is not responsible if the republication or repetition is not the natural and probable consequence of his act, but is the independent and unauthorized act of a third party.

Weaver v. Beneficial Fin. Co., 199 Va. 196, 199 (1957).

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When the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization, sued Katie Couric for defamation back in 2016, the two big issues from a legal perspective were (1) whether the edited video of the VCDL members conveyed a false statement of fact, and (2) if so, whether that false message carried a defamatory meaning sufficient to support a cause of action for defamation. When I first wrote about the case the day after it was filed, I devoted most of my blog post to the issue of whether video and still images can support the falsity element of a defamation claim (they can). Now that the case has completed its journey through the legal system, I thought I would revisit this case, this time focusing more on the second issue: that of defamatory meaning.

At the trial level, the court answered both questions in the negative, finding that the video was “not false” and that, even if it were false, it lacked sufficient defamatory meaning to survive a motion to dismiss. On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the Court of Appeals held as I predicted it might: it overruled the trial court’s determination that the video was not false, but nevertheless affirmed the dismissal of the case because that falsity did not carry defamatory meaning sufficient to state a claim for defamation under Virginia law. What surprised me about the ruling was not the result but how little was written in the opinion about whether the law should recognize a defamation claim based on a false statement deemed despicable by a large segment of society, but not by the majority of Americans. This seemed to be a good case for the court to grapple with that issue, as the degree to which VCDL members’ reputations suffered among viewers of the documentary likely varied according to viewers’ opinions on gun ownership. Instead, the court held (in a footnote, no less) that defamatory meaning should be measured according to “the common estimation of mankind” without consideration of variations that may exist among smaller segments of the populace.

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Republication of a libel may be grounds for defamation liability. (See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 578; Lee v. Dong–A Ilbo, 849 F.2d 876, 878 (4th Cir. 1988) (“Under the republication rule, one who repeats a defamatory statement is as liable as the original defamer”)). Liability, however, is not automatic, and republished statements may be subject to certain privileges the same way original statements are. If a person hears a defamatory statement and proceeds to share that statement with another person, whether liability will be imposed under the republication rule will depend largely on the extent to which the person repeating the statement (i.e., spreading the rumor or gossip) adopts the statement as her own by expressing the assertion as a fact, rather than merely as a representation made by another person. If Dave says, “according to Steve, Paul is a convicted felon” and that statement is literally true (because Steve did say that) even though Paul is not actually a convicted felon, a qualified privilege may protect Dave from defamation liability even though he is guilty of republication.

The privilege is easier to establish when the statement being repeated is one made by the government or otherwise on a matter of public concern. Some states recognize a “neutral reportage” privilege, which protects the “accurate and disinterested reporting” of charges on matters of public concern made by a “responsible, prominent” party against a public figure. (See, e.g., Edwards v. National Audubon Society, Inc., 556 F.2d 113 (2nd Cir.)). Virginia hasn’t formally adopted the “neutral reportage” privilege, but it does adhere to a so-called “fair report” privilege, which accomplishes essentially the same thing in most situations.

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Appearances can be deceiving. But in terms of analyzing whether a particular government employee should be treated as a “public official” for purposes of asserting a defamation claim, appearances may make all the difference in whether a plaintiff will be required to show malice or merely negligence. Horne v. WTVR was a case based on a claim of implied defamation that I wrote about back in 2017. As noted in my earlier blog post, the case ended with a directed verdict in favor of WTVR, because the trial court deemed Ms. Horne a public official and found insufficient evidence of malice to justify allowing a jury to consider the claim. Ms. Horne appealed that ruling, and on June 18, 2018, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. In doing so, it elaborated on what it means to be a “public official” in Virginia.

If the plaintiff in a defamation case is a public official, he cannot “recover[] damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’―that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279–80 (1964)). This is significant, because private plaintiffs are only required to establish negligence to succeed on a defamation claim–a much lower threshold.

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As I looked over a recent batch of opinions from the Western District of Virginia, one of them caught my eye for two reasons. First, I never imagined that a person might file a federal lawsuit against Golden Corral over an accusation of stealing chicken legs. We truly live in litigious times. Second, the case reminded me of the seldom-invoked “shopkeeper’s privilege” against defamation claims, otherwise known as merchant immunity. I don’t believe I’ve written about it before, so let’s dive in.

Here’s what happened in Leah Wynette Williams v. Lisa Annette Lipscomb, according to the opinion. It was Leah Williams’ daughter’s birthday, so to celebrate, they headed out to Golden Corral along with a sibling and Leah’s mother, Phyllis. They ordered the dinner buffet, for which they paid a fixed price. As they were eating, their server, Lisa Lipscomb, seemed to hover in the general vicinity of their table, sweeping the floor continuously. At one point, the server accused the family of attempting to smuggle food home for future consumption. She warned the family that the restaurant had security cameras, and went to get the manager, telling him that she had seen Phyllis putting chicken legs in her purse. The manager asked to look inside the purse. The family refused. Instead, Leah called 9-1-1, claiming to be “in fear for her family’s lives and safety.” They waited for an officer to arrive, had a brief discussion, and that was essentially the end of the matter. That is, until Leah sued the server, the manager, and the Golden Corral franchisee for defamation and various other claims.

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The Internet is full of morons. If an Internet troll who clearly has no idea what he or she is talking about posts false statements on social media about another person, the effect on the reader is different than if the same statement had been written by an authoritative figure and circulated to the public in a formal news release. Readers would tend to believe the assertions made in the authority figure’s formal statement, and tend to dismiss the troll’s statement as nothing more than meaningless Internet noise. In actions for libel and slander, the perceived knowledgeability and credibility of the speaker plays an important role in the determination of whether defamatory meaning has been conveyed by a particular statement.

The Alex Jones lawsuit comes to mind. Alex Jones is the host of InfoWars and an extremely popular online conspiracy theorist. He has claimed that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax, complete with adult and child actors, invented by government-backed “gun grabbers.” Many of his followers apparently believed his claims and have been harassing the victims’ families. Recently, several of the families have filed defamation lawsuits against Jones, arguing that he “persistently perpetuated a monstrous, unspeakable lie: that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged, and that the families who lost loved ones that day are actors who faked their relatives’ deaths.”

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