In cases of defamation per se in Virginia, successful plaintiffs can recover “presumed” damages even if they are unable to prove exactly how their reputations were harmed and to what extent. For example, defamatory statements that impute to the plaintiff an unfitness to perform the duties of her job would be considered defamatory per se because it is widely understood and accepted that a serious and false accusation about somebody’s ability to perform one’s job would inevitably cause compensable harm. What many don’t realize, however, is that the defamation-per-se categories presuppose that the underlying statement satisfies the elements of actionable defamation. If a statement doesn’t qualify as defamation, then it won’t qualify as defamation per se, even if it seems to fit into one of the per-se categories. If Dave says about Paul, a chef at an upscale restaurant, “Paul is the worst chef in the United States and I wouldn’t feed his disgusting dishes to my worst enemy’s dog,” the fact that the statement suggests Paul is unfit to perform the duties of his job does not make the statement defamatory per se. This particular statement would not be actionable because it reflects only Dave’s personal opinion. Defamation per se is a specific type of actionable defamation, not a substitute for it.
Defamation per se is not a separate tort. The tort is called defamation, and defamation per se is just a particular type of defamation. Lawyers get this wrong all the time, assuming erroneously that any statement that, say, imputes to the plaintiff an unfitness to perform the duties of a job or a lack of integrity in the performance of those duties, automatically qualifies for a multi-million-dollar defamation-per-se case. Did a co-worker tell your boss that you engaged in unprofessional or unethical conduct? Sure, a statement like that might be designed to convey that you are unfit to perform the functions of your job, but it takes more than that to bring a valid claim for defamation per se.