Articles Posted in Defamation Per Se

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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For an untrue statement about a person to be actionable as libel or slander, it has to be defamatory in nature. I’ve written about defamatory meaning before, but basically what this means is that the statement has to be more harmful than a mere insult; rather, it must cast a person is such a negative light that people hearing or reading the statement would be deterred from associating or dealing with the person about whom the statement was made. A defamatory statement thus lowers its subject in the eyes of the community. But which community are we talking about? Who are these people in whose estimation one may be defamed? Suppose a person is falsely accused of having been discovered in possession of an assault rifle. Whom should we ask about whether that statement carries defamatory meaning, the National Rifle Association or the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence?

There’s not a whole lot of case law to answer this question. The position of the Restatement of Torts is that a “communication to be defamatory need not tend to prejudice the other in the eyes of everyone in the community or of all of his associates, nor even in the eyes of a majority of them. It is enough that the communication would tend to prejudice him in the eyes of a substantial and respectable minority of them.” (See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 559 cmt e). That seems to be the majority position in courts across the country, including Virginia, whether they express the principle in these terms or not.

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Hypersensitivity is not a desirable personality trait if you are a plaintiff in a defamation case. If you’re the type of person who tends to jump to conclusions about an author’s intent when reading certain statements made about you on social media, you should think twice (and consult with a defamation attorney) before rushing off to sue the writer for libel. This is because when a judge is faced with the task of deciding whether to allow a defamation claim to go forward, one of the preliminary rulings he or she must make is about how a reasonable reader would interpret the words claimed to be defamatory. If most people reading the article or social-media post would not draw the same defamatory conclusions that you are drawing when they read the statement, your case will likely be dismissed at the outset.

When a statement is clear, straightforward and unambiguous, interpretation usually won’t be an issue. But sometimes even the most well-intentioned writer can express thoughts in a manner that implies hidden meaning to at least some readers. Defamation liability can arise out of a statement that is literally true if a defamatory meaning can be reasonably inferred. Key to this principle, however, is that the inferred meaning must be reasonable; it cannot extend beyond the “ordinary and common acceptation of the words used.” A hypersensitive plaintiff who resorts to twisted logic or an overly-technical interpretation to reach a defamatory understanding from non-defamatory words will not be successful in court. Before allowing a case to go to a jury, the judge will examine the circumstances surrounding the making and publication of the statement and decide whether innuendo arising from the statement could cause a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory message.

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When suing for libel or slander in Virginia, it helps if you can make out a claim for that form of defamation known as defamation per se. If the judge agrees that your claim qualifies, he or she will instruct the jury to presume general damages and authorize it to award punitive damages even in the absence of compensatory damages. However, too often, plaintiffs place unneeded emphasis on trying to characterize their claim as defamation per se and overlook regular garden-variety defamation, known as defamation per quod. Defamation per quod can give rise to fairly substantial liability, as Rolling Stone found out when a former University of Virginia won $3 million based on a false portrayal of her in an article about rape on campus.

Defamatory words fall into the “per se” category if they: (1) 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; (2) impute that a person is infected with some contagious disease, where if the charge is true, it would exclude the party from society; (3) impute to a person unfitness to perform the duties of an office or employment of profit, or want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of such an office or employment; or (4) prejudice the plaintiff in his or her profession or trade. (See Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, 196 Va. 1, 7 (1954)).

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Since the Supreme Court decided the seminal Curtis Publishing case back in 1967, public figures have played an important role in U.S. defamation jurisprudence. That case held that it should be more difficult for public figures to sue for libel and slander than ordinary private citizens, because if public figures have voluntarily thrust themselves “into the vortex” of a public debate, they should assume that they may become the subject of public discussion and should be willing to accept the risk that on occasion, less-careful fact-checkers may say certain things about them that aren’t true. Therefore, although private citizens will only need to demonstrate negligence to recover damages caused by defamation, public figures need to prove the defendant either knew he or she was spreading false information, or acted with reckless disregard for whether the information was true or false. This heightened level of wrongful intent is known as malice.

Some erroneously equate public figures with celebrities. In reality, the level of fame a plaintiff needs to achieve before being categorized as a “public figure” by a Virginia court is much lower than that of household-name celebrities. Moreover, courts recognize “limited purpose” public figures and subject them to the same obstacles regular all-purpose public figures face when the alleged defamation is based on the subject matter of their public participation and involvement.

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Insults are not usually deemed sufficiently harmful to give rise to a legal cause of action. The law expects people to have skin thick enough to withstand a certain amount of criticism and unpleasantness. There is, however, an “insulting words” statute in Virginia (Va. Code § 8.01-45) that prohibits insults that are so offensive that they tend to violence and breach of the peace. To state a claim for insulting words under the statute, all that is required is that the words (1) be insults and (2) “tend to violence and breach of the peace.”

“What about freedom of speech?” you might be wondering. In the seminal case of Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the Supreme Court held that the punishment of certain narrowly limited classes of speech, such as “fighting words” that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, would not raise a constitutional concern. The Supreme Court later clarified that fighting words could only be restricted upon the satisfaction of a rigorous “clear and present danger” test. See Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949) (holding that “freedom of speech…is…protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest”).
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Redouane Goulmamine, M.D., is physician based in Petersburg, Virginia, who conducts business under the name “The Petersburg Spine Center.” According to a complaint he filed in the Richmond Division of the Eastern District of Virginia federal court, he became aware that several employees of CVS Pharmacy were providing false information about him to patients and refusing to fill prescriptions he had written. CVS eventually made it official, sending him a letter notifying him that the pharmacy would no longer fill his prescriptions and implying its decision was based on its belief that Dr. Goulmamine had been writing pain-pill prescriptions for drug addicts.

Dr. Goulmamine sued CVS for defamation, insulting words, and tortious interference with contract/business expectancy. The complaint recites nearly two-dozen conversations with CVS employees alleged to be defamatory. Some of the statements were clearly statements of opinion (e.g., “he is filling too many prescriptions”), but the court noted that several alleged statements amounted to statements of fact that were claimed to be false. These statements primarily fell into two camps: (1) false factual statements about Dr. Goulmamine himself (e.g., that he was in jail; that he had overprescribed to a pregnant patient; that one of his patients had died from a Xanax overdose; and that someone in his office was producing fraudulent prescriptions); and (2) false or misleading factual statements about Dr. Goulmamine’s standing in relationship to regulatory bodies (e.g., that the DEA, FBI, or Board of Medicine was investigating him or had revoked his license, or that he was being “audited.”)
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The case of AdvanFort Co. v. International Registries, Inc. involves a defamation claim brought by AdvanFort and its owners against their former attorney, maritime lawyer John Cartner, and The Maritime Executive, a maritime industry journal. According to the complaint, shortly after AdvanFort complained about getting billed over $28,000 for less than two weeks’ worth of legal services, Cartner wrote an article entitled “Self-Described AdvanFort ‘Billionaire’ May Not Be” in which he made numerous assertions allegedly calculated to lower AdvanFort in the estimation of the maritime community. Cartner responded that his article amounted to mere rhetorical hyperbole, which is not actionable, and that the article was not written with malice.

Defamation requires either a provably false factual assertion or a statement that can be reasonably interpreted as stating or implying actual facts about a person. Rhetorical hyperbole is protected under the First Amendment and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim. (See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 17, 21). The Fourth Circuit has described rhetorical hyperbole as a statement that “might appear to make an assertion, but a reasonable reader or listener would not construe that assertion seriously.” (See Schnare v. Ziessow, 104 Fed. App’x 847, 851 (4th Cir. 2004)).

In analyzing whether a particular statement will be actionable as defamation in Virginia, it’s usually helpful to review recent cases to see how actual judges have ruled. It’s often not entirely clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact, an expression of opinion, or rhetorical hyperbole. Here’s how Judge O’Grady ruled with respect to the various statements at issue in this article:
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