Earlier this month, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Williamsburg Circuit Court to uphold a jury verdict against former circuit court judge Verbena Askew in the amount of $350,000 for defamation. Askew had made a comment to The Daily Press that plaintiff Brenda Collins, who had worked in the court over which then-judge Askew presided, “was institutionalized – that’s the only way you qualify for family leave.” The Daily Press did not actually publish the statement, but the Court found that the defamation occurred when the statement was made to the press.
A private individual claiming defamation must prove by a preponderance of the evidence (1) that the defamatory publication is false and (2) that the defendant “either knew it to be false, or believing it to be true, lacked reasonable grounds for such belief or acted negligently in failing to ascertain the facts on which the publication was based.” If the publication amounts to defamation per se, such as defamatory statements that impute an unfitness to perform official duties, the plaintiff is presumptively entitled to compensatory damages.
Askew first argued that she should not have to pay damages because her statement about Collins was never published by The Daily Press and thus did not proximately cause any injury to Collins. The Virginia Supreme Court rejected this argument, holding that the evidence supported the jury’s finding that Askew made a defamatory statement to the press either knowing it was false or negligently failing to ascertain the facts. Because the jury found the statement amounted to per se defamation, it was entitled to presume that Collins suffered damages as a result, regardless of whether The Daily Press republished the statement.
The court also rejected Askew’s argument that the verdict should be reduced by the amount of a settlement with other defendants. The court pointed out that Section 8.01-35.1(A)(1) of the Virginia Code only provides for such an offset when two or more defendants are liable for the same injury. In this case, Askew was found liable for the injury caused by her own statement, not by any injury caused by her co-defendants.