Just last week I wrote about a Virginia state-court case that dealt with the issue of whether sending electronic data through a Virginia server (which often happens when defamation is posted online) could satisfy the “minimum contacts” test needed to establish personal jurisdiction. Two days after I posted that article, a federal case from the Eastern District of Virginia was decided in which a federal judge grappled with the exact same issue. In both cases, the courts reached the same conclusion: in cases of online defamation, personal jurisdiction requires more than merely posting comments hosted on a server that happens to be based in Virginia, or which sends data through a Virginia-based server on its way to the Internet. Due process is not satisfied without purposeful targeting of a Virginia audience.

The federal case is FireClean, LLC v. Andrew Tuohy. According to the allegations of the complaint, the facts are essentially these: FireClean manufactures a gun-cleaning oil it claims reduces carbon residue buildup in firearms. It is made of a blend of at least three natural oils derived from a plant, vegetable, fruit, shrub, flower, or tree nut. Beginning around August 2015, various gun-themed blogs started publicizing that FireClean was really nothing more than “Crisco” or other common vegetable oil. The maker of a competing gun oil posted a video online purporting to prove that FireClean was “pretty much a Crisco oil.” The Vuurwapen Blog took an interest in this allegation and decided to further investigate.

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In cases of Internet defamation, the issue of personal jurisdiction comes up a lot. “Personal jurisdiction” refers to a court’s authority to make rulings that affect a person. This isn’t an issue when two Virginia residents are in litigation with each other, as state courts have the power to enter rulings that affect their residents, but when a Virginia resident files a libel lawsuit in Virginia against someone who doesn’t live here, a preliminary issue arises with respect to whether the Virginia court has the power to enter a judgment against the nonresident. If the court lacks personal jurisdiction over the defendant, the case will be dismissed. When defamatory statements are published online and are therefore accessible all over the world, Virginia courts struggle with trying to sort out whether it is constitutionally permissible to assert authority over a writer who has never stepped foot in Virginia.

The basic analysis requires two steps. First, the court must determine whether Virginia’s “long-arm statute” reaches the defendant. (Think of this law as one that describes the circumstances under which the state can reach out with a “long arm” to grab a defendant residing in another state and pull him into Virginia to require him to defend against a lawsuit). Next, assuming the long-arm statute does apply, the court must ensure that exercising personal jurisdiction over that defendant complies with the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.

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Yes, the First Amendment protects your right, as a consumer, to express your personal opinions about any business you ordered products or services from, no matter how unfavorable those opinions may be. The First Amendment also protects your right to express those opinions anonymously, so if you’d rather not tell the whole world that you had a bad experience with the customer-service representative at Ashley Madison, the law allows you to post an unfavorable review of the company without revealing your real name. Still, despite the abundance and convenience of online review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google+, and Angie’s List, many consumers are reluctant to share negative experiences on these sites. Why? They worry about being sued for defamation. They read about aggressive businesses who bury non-disparagement clauses in form contracts and who file multi-million-dollar libel and slander claims in far-flung jurisdictions, based solely on a negative Yelp review. So they keep their opinions to themselves, depriving the consuming public of the benefit of their experiences. (This is known, incidentally, as a “chilling effect”).

Unfortunately, if you rip into a shady business with a scathing (and well-deserved) online review, there is always a possibility that the business will sue you for defamation. These claims are often frivolous and filed only as an intimidation tactic, but they are a pain to deal with nonetheless. Still, when a business deserves a one-star review, and has dealt with you in such a way that you feel an obligation to warn other consumers about the business, you can still write that scathing review with little risk of retaliation. Here are five considerations to keep in mind as you write that review:

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When local politicians sue media defendants over false and defamatory stories related to their official conduct, they need to show that the article in question was published with actual malice. That means that it’s not enough to show negligent reporting or that some of the facts in the article are untrue; a successful public official bringing a defamation claim against a newspaper must show that the paper either knew the facts were wrong or that they were most likely wrong, and proceeded to publish them anyway.

In Hanover County, Virginia, Supervisor Sean M. Davis is taking a crack at the publisher of Style Weekly and its reporter, Peter Galuszka, over an article written last December that questioned whether Mr. Davis was exerting improper influence on a local high school’s curriculum. After noting that several books and movies had been banned from Hanover High School, the article described “some students, former teachers and parents” as saying that Supervisor Davis had “personally intervened to have teachers suspended or face other disciplinary actions if they present ideas or images that Davis considers too liberal.” In truth, claims his lawsuit, Davis “had absolutely nothing to do with the suspension or firing of any teacher or the banning of any book.” His challenge is going to be in proving that the reporter republished the accusations against him with knowledge that they were untrue, or at least with a high degree of awareness that the accusations were probably untrue.

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In Virginia, when a defamation action is brought by a private individual (as opposed to a public figure), the plaintiff will usually only need to establish negligence to meet the “intent” element required to prevail in such actions. Public figures, on the other hand, need to prove the defendant acted with New York Times malice. A little-known exception to the rule for private individuals, however, is that if the statement at issue does not make “substantial danger to reputation” apparent to the reasonable publisher, then even private plaintiffs would need to prove malice to recover for defamation. As explained by the Virginia Supreme Court in Gazette, Inc. v. Harris, 229 Va. 1, 22-23 (1985), a threshold question of law for the trial judge is to determine “whether a reasonable and prudent editor should have anticipated that the words used contained an imputation necessarily harmful to reputation.”

Do not confuse “substantial danger to reputation” with defamatory meaning. Regardless of the state of mind of the defendant, a statement won’t be actionable if it doesn’t carry the requisite defamatory sting. Every defamatory statement must contain the sort of false characterizations that would tend to harm one’s reputation. What plaintiffs need to prove in every defamation action is not just that a statement has the potential to cause substantial danger to reputation but that it actually is the sort of statement that would tend to harm reputation. What we’re talking about now–the “Gazette test”–deals with the foreseeability and obviousness of the harmful nature of the statement. In other words, while a successful plaintiff will always need to demonstrate defamatory meaning, if that defamatory meaning would not be readily apparent to a reasonable person in the position of the defendant at the time the statement was made, the plaintiff will need to prove malice, even if he or she is a private individual.

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You may have heard that truth is a complete defense to an action for libel or slander. This is essentially correct, but it would be more accurate to say that to win a defamation case, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the statements at issue are false. In other words, the burden of demonstrating falsity lies with the person bringing the case; the defendant does not need to prove that the statements were true. If the jury finds that the odds of a defamatory statement being true are exactly 50-50, the defendant wins, not because “truth is a complete defense,” but because the plaintiff failed to convince the jury that the statement was false.

So if you’re a prospective plaintiff considering suing someone for defamation, you need to understand that you’re not going to win unless the words that were spoken or written about you are false. And when I say “false,” I mean that the part of the statement that is hurtful or offensive–the “sting” of the statement–needs to be false in all material respects. If the stinging words are substantially true, forget litigation. Filing a lawsuit is only going to invoke the Streisand Effect and bring more attention to the situation, resulting in further harm to your reputation.

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As a general proposition, libel and slander liability requires a defamatory statement of fact; expressions of opinion are not actionable. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Factual statements are generally those that contain—expressly or impliedly—a provably false factual connotation. “Mr. Smith drank ten shots of tequila last night” is a statement of fact; either he drank ten shots or he didn’t. Expressions of opinion, on the other hand, are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker’s personal viewpoint. They tend to consist of evaluative statements reflecting the speaker’s own political, moral, or aesthetic views. “I think Mr. Smith drinks more tequila than he really should” would likely be deemed an expression of opinion by most courts. But consider the statement “I think Mr. Smith must be an alcoholic.” Fact or opinion?

Statements that appear at first to be opinions but which could fairly be interpreted as implying the existence of facts not disclosed by the speaker are treated by Virginia courts as opinions “laden with factual content,” which is a sufficient predicate upon which to base a defamation action. (See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Lipscomb, 234 Va. 277, 298 n.8 (1987)). Ultimately, whether a statement of apparent opinion will be deemed sufficiently laden with factual content to support a defamation action will depend on a number of factors that would influence how a reasonable reader or listener would most likely interpret the statement. Considerations include the following:

To bring a successful defamation claim in Virginia state courts, it is necessary to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate to the judge that the statement claimed to be defamatory is capable of conveying a defamatory meaning to a reasonable audience. Before a defamation claim can be presented to a jury, the judge needs to make a preliminary determination that the statement at issue conveys factual information (rather than mere opinions) and that such factual information could be reasonably interpreted as having a defamatory meaning. What is a trial court supposed to do if the complaint contains only a short, out-of-context excerpt of the defendant’s statement?

In federal court, some judges have denied motions to dismiss such claims on the theory that the merits of the claim—while not apparent from the face of the complaint—are plausible and might be proven at trial. In state court, however, guidance from the Virginia Supreme Court suggests that libel and slander cases should be dismissed on demurrer if defamatory meaning is not readily apparent. In some situations, plaintiffs’ lawyers will craft the complaint in such a way as to make an out-of-context statement appear defamatory, when the surrounding statements omitted from the allegations would demonstrate that the statement as a whole could only be reasonably interpreted as hyperbole or opinion. When defense counsel is faced with such a situation, the smart move is to move for a bill of particulars.

Trial courts can order a bill of particulars “to amplify any pleading that does not provide notice of a claim or defense adequate to permit the adversary a fair opportunity to respond or prepare the case.” Va. Sup. Ct. Rule 3:7(a). When a plaintiff claims defamation, the preferred practice is to include the entire statement (verbatim) as well as all relevant surrounding details of the statement sufficient to demonstrate context. When such details are not included, “they are proper matters to be stated in a bill of particulars.” Fed. Land Bank of Baltimore v. Birchfield, 173 Va. 200, 217 (1939). The Virginia Supreme Court reiterated this principle as recently as 2006, when it expressly recognized that “the particulars of [an] allegedly defamatory statement may be supplied in a bill of particulars.” See Government Micro Res., Inc. v. Jackson, 271 Va. 29, 38 (2006).

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Credit reporting agencies make mistakes. Even when they’re not at fault, the credit reports they prepare often contain inaccurate information about consumers. When this happens, can the consumer sue the credit reporting agency for defamation? Well, maybe. Virginia defamation laws usually apply where false statements have been made to others that cause harm to one’s reputation, but these are state laws which may be preempted by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. Federal laws preempt state laws when they apply to the same situation.

The relevant part of the FCRA provides that, with certain exceptions, “no consumer may bring any action or proceeding in the nature of defamation, …with respect to the reporting of information against any consumer reporting agency, any user of information, or any person who furnishes information to a consumer reporting agency, based on information disclosed pursuant to section 1681g, 1681h, or 1681m of this title, or based on information disclosed by a user of a consumer report to or for a consumer against whom the user has taken adverse action, based in whole or in part on the report except as to false information furnished with malice or willful intent to injure such consumer.” That’s a mouthful, but the key point to remember is this: you can’t sue a credit reporting agency for making an innocent mistake; to bring a defamation action based on an inaccuracy in your credit report, the falsity must have been made with malice or a willful intent to harm the consumer.

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Publication is an essential element of any defamation claim. It exists when a communication is made to a third party (i.e., someone other than the person defamed, and other than the person making the statement). This is because the essence of libel and slander is the diminution of one’s reputation in the eyes of others. A false accusation made privately to you may be insulting, but it wouldn’t be defamatory because a statement not heard by others would not affect your reputation. But what if the false accusation is made in a setting that isn’t so private—a courtroom, for example? Could a devious tortfeasor avoid defamation liability by addressing his comments only to the plaintiff despite speaking loudly enough that third persons are likely to hear the statements?

Most Virginia cases defining publication describe a situation where a statement is made directly to a third party. (See, for example, Thalhimer Bros. v. Shaw, 156 Va. 863, 871 (1931) (defining publication as the “uttering the slanderous words to some third person so as to be heard and understood by such person”); Tomlin v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp., 84 Va. Cir. 280 (2012) (referring to “the element of publication to a third party”)). Publication is a broader concept than these definitions suggest. The Restatement defines publication more comprehensively as communication of defamatory matter “intentionally or by a negligent act to one other than the person defamed.” The Virginia Supreme Court implicitly adopted the Restatement position in Food Lion, Inc. v. Melton, 250 Va. 144 (1995), where it held that the publication element is satisfied where, “when the defendant addressed the defamatory words to the plaintiff, another person was present, heard the words spoken, and understood the statement as referring to the plaintiff.”
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