In Virginia, as in other states, potentially defamatory statements made in official government proceedings receive protection from defamation claims. But some such statements get the benefit of absolute privilege, which means that even a knowingly false statement can’t be the basis of liability, while a larger category of statements receive only a qualified privilege. A qualified privilege gives the plaintiff an opportunity to show that the statement was made with malice — and to recover damages if he or she can prove that it was.
In Small v. Nogiec, the Supreme Court of Virginia examined remarks made by a county assistant administrator during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors of Isle of Wight County, and concluded that only a qualified privilege applies to the statements since they were not made in a legislative context. The court therefore unanimously upheld a jury verdict for the plaintiff.
In March 2007, Alan Nogiec retired from his job as the county’s director of Parks and Recreation. A few months before he retired, the county’s museum was damaged by heavy rains. In May 2007, Assistant County Administrator Patrick Small gave a report at a board meeting about efforts being undertaken to repair the museum. He said that before the storm, information about the likelihood of flooding “had been suppressed” by the parks director and that this “borders on negligence in my opinion.”