Defamatory statements falling into certain categories deemed particularly damaging to one’s reputation are considered defamatory “per se” and may be compensable even without proof of reputational harm. False accusations of morally reprehensible criminal activity are a common example of this “per se” form of defamation. As the Virginia Supreme Court has put it, defamatory words will be considered defamation per se when they “impute to a person the commission of some criminal offense involving moral turpitude, for which the party, if the charge is true, may be indicted and punished.” (Tronfeld v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 272 Va. 709, 713 (2006)). One thing that remains unclear, however, is the degree of specificity required before a statement will be deemed defamatory per se. Must the statement describe specific conduct, or is it sufficient to merely characterize unspecified conduct as criminal in nature? Must a specific criminal offense be identified? There doesn’t yet seem to be a consensus on these questions. The latest Virginia court to deal with them allowed a case to proceed on the basis of very vague allegations.

Here’s what happened in the case of Frances J. Belisle v. Laura Baxter, according to the opinion. Frances brought two counts of defamation per se against Baxter, a police officer with the City of Hopewell, arising out of her arrest at Hopewell High School for disorderly conduct. The police were at the high school at its request to provide security at a school event in which Frances’ minor daughters were participants. They set up a barricade of tables to form a controlled entry point to a hallway in the school. When Frances approached the tables with her 9-year-old daughter, seeking to escort her to a classroom, she was initially told that only the daughter could enter. The police eventually decided it was OK to allow the parent to come in, but when Frances later observed Officer Baxter stopping another mother from entering the hallway, she decided to intervene.

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Whether a particular tort is deemed intentional, as opposed to merely negligent, can have far-reaching implications. Intentional torts and negligent torts are treated very differently when it comes to things like insurance coverage, sovereign immunity, and recoverable damages. Defamation is one of those torts that cannot be easily categorized, as the degree of intent required to hold someone liable for defamation differs depending on the circumstances. If the plaintiff is a public figure, he will have to prove the defendant intentionally made a false statement, or at least made the statement with a high degree of awareness of its probably falsity. Private-figure plaintiffs, on the other hand, need only demonstrate a level of culpability akin to negligence, a standard that does not require a showing of intent. States differ in their treatment of defamation-by-implication cases, but in Virginia, the speaker must have intended to make a defamatory implication to be held liable.

Some would argue that defamation by implication should only be deemed an intentional tort in those cases where malice is required. Most court opinions involving claims of implied defamation focus solely on whether the statement implies a defamatory meaning to the reasonable listener or reader, without regard to the defendant’s subjective intent in making the statement. According to Section 563 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, “the meaning of a communication is that which the recipient correctly, or mistakenly but reasonably, understands that it was intended to express.” If the requisite level of intent for defamation liability is mere negligence (the usual standard in cases not involving public figures or officials), it might make sense to hold the speaker liable for a reasonable defamatory inference even if that inference was not the intended meaning. Since the Virginia Supreme Court decided Pendleton v. Newsome, however, it has been clear that plaintiffs seeking to hold defendants liable based on a defamatory implication must demonstrate not only a defamatory inference but that the defendant intended to communicate that inference.

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When California congressman Devin Nunes, a public figure, decided to file a pair of defamation lawsuits against Twitter (based in California), The McClatchy Company (based in California), and others, why do you suppose he selected Virginia as his forum of choice? One popular theory is that Virginia’s anti-SLAPP laws are much weaker than those in California and many other states. In fact, some Virginia courts aren’t so sure Virginia’s law can even be characterized accurately an an “anti-SLAPP statute,” given that the phrase is not found anywhere in the statute itself and the law does not expressly authorize any special motion designed to suspend discovery and cut the litigation short absent an evidentiary showing by the plaintiff.

Like traditional anti-SLAPP statutes, Virginia’s immunity statute applies to defamation claims based solely on statements regarding matters of public concern that would be protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Unlike most anti-SLAPP statutes, however, Virginia lacks any special procedure designed to invoke this immunity at the earliest stages of the litigation. In California, for example, if a defamation lawsuit is brought over a statement amounting to a constitutionally protected exercise of free speech, the person sued can file a “special motion to strike” that (a) suspends all discovery, and (b) requires the plaintiff to proffer evidence sufficient to show a likelihood of success on the merits of the case. Virginia procedural rules do allow for the filing of a preliminary motion called a “plea in bar,” but many Virginia judges prefer to address the immunity issue at trial rather than at the start of the litigation.

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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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