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The Virginia statute of limitations for defamation claims states that “every action for injury resulting from libel, slander, insulting words, or defamation shall be brought within one year after the cause of action accrues.” (See Va. Code § 8.01-247.1). A defamation cause of action “accrues” when the defamatory acts occurred, which is generally the date the defamatory statements were communicated to a third party. Some plaintiffs have tried to file defamation actions after the one-year period has expired (i.e., over a year after the accrual date) by arguing that the statute of limitations should be extended because the defendant engaged in a continuous, ongoing defamation campaign that isn’t really capable of being measured by any particular date. This theory has been successful in getting around statutes of limitations governing breach-of-contract cases against doctors and lawyers, but as a recent federal case confirms, it doesn’t apply to defamation claims.

The theory has been described variously as the “continuous tort rule,” the “continuing wrong doctrine,” the “continuing violation doctrine,” and the “continuous undertaking rule.” Regardless of what you call it, the idea is that a court can consider acts occurring outside the limitations period if there is a “fixed and continuing practice” of unlawful acts both before and during the limitations period. (See Commonwealth ex rel. Fair Hous. Bd. v. Windsor Plaza Condo. Ass’n, Inc., 289 Va. 34, 65 (2014)). Under this rule, “where there is an undertaking which requires a continuation of services, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the termination of the undertaking.” (Harris v. K & K Ins. Agency, 249 Va. 157, 161 (1995)). The rule postpones the accrual date “with respect to a particular undertaking or transaction” and applies “only when a continuous or recurring course of professional services relating to a particular undertaking is shown to have taken place over a period of time.” (Moonlight Enters., LLC v. Mroz, 293 Va. 224, 230 (2017)).

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Climate change scientist Dr. Michael Mann is threatening legal action against the National Review magazine for a blog post that appeared in “The Corner” section of its online publication. In the article, journalist Mark Steyn quoted writer Rand Simberg’s observation that Dr. Mann “could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data…” Mr. Steyn went on to call Mann “the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”

In a demand letter to the National Review, Dr. Mann’s attorney, John Williams, contends that Mr. Steyn’s statements amount to accusations of academic fraud and constitute defamation per se. He argues that the statements were false and were made with the knowledge that they were false. He cites several inquiries into his research which concluded that he has not engaged in academic fraud as proof that Mr. Steyn’s statements are false. Dr. Mann demands that the National Review retract the article and apologize or face legal action.

Dr. Mann may have a valid complaint, but he is going to have his work cut out for him. Dr. Mann is a well-known, much published and often quoted figure in the climate change debate. In fact, Dr. Mann has written a book on the climate change controversy. Courts have held that scientists who inject themselves into public controversies over scientific and political debates are public figures. As a public figure, Dr. Mann would have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the National Review published a provably false statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

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