When a defamatory statement is republished by another person, that person may be held liable to the same extent as the original defamer. I recently wrote about liability for rumor-mongering and focused on the potential liability of the person spreading rumors heard from another source. This month, I want to focus on the potential liability of the source of the defamatory statement, particularly when the statement is made to another under circumstances that make it highly likely the defamatory statement will be shared with a larger audience.
The general rule in Virginia is that the original publisher of a defamatory statement will be liable for republication if repetition of the statement was foreseeable as the natural and probable consequence of the original publication:
It is well settled that the author or originator of a defamation is liable for a republication or repetition thereof by third persons, provided it is the natural and probable consequence of his act, or he has presumptively or actually authorized or directed its republication. This is based upon the principle that such republication constitutes a new cause of action against the original author. However, the original author is not responsible if the republication or repetition is not the natural and probable consequence of his act, but is the independent and unauthorized act of a third party.
Weaver v. Beneficial Fin. Co., 199 Va. 196, 199 (1957).
This basically means that if a person shares a false rumor with a close friend with the understanding that the rumor would not be shared with anyone else, he may not be held liable for defamation based on the friend’s unauthorized sharing of the information with another person (such as posting the rumor on Facebook). But if the false rumor is sent not to a trusted confidant but to, say, the Washington Post, knowing that the Post would likely be interested in the story and that it would share the false information with its millions of readers, the source of the information may be held responsible for the damage caused thereby. It wouldn’t be an excuse for that person to point out that he only shared the rumor with a single entity and that it was that entity who actually caused the damage to reputation. That damage was the natural and probable consequence of his actions, so the person who started the rumor is responsible.
Let’s look at a real-world example. In Adams v. Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, the Norfolk Circuit Court dealt with the foreseeable-republication rule in its consideration of a demurrer last September. The facts of the case (taking the allegations of the complaint as true, as the court is required to do when considering a demurrer) were essentially these:
In August 2015, Dawn Adams received an invoice from the Children’s Hospital for services rendered to a child named Nathaniel. Ms. Adams had no such child, and contacted the hospital to explain they had billed her in error. The hospital acknowledged their mistake and promised to correct it. But instead, they referred the unpaid invoice to Security Collection Agency, falsely telling them that Adams was responsible for the unpaid invoice. The collection agency proceeded to report the debt to Equifax Information Services, which updated her credit report accordingly. Adams sued the hospital for defamation, claiming “loss of credit opportunities, injuries to her reputation and standing in the community, and embarrassment, humiliation, and other mental and emotional distress.”
The hospital made a number of arguments to try to get the case dismissed, but of relevance to this blog post, they argued that the case should be dismissed because it was not the hospital that made any of the allegedly inaccurate statements that led to Adams’ claimed injuries, and because the alleged facts were insufficient to establish that the collection agency acted as the hospital’s agent.
The court declined to address the agency argument, reasoning that defamation liability was established under the Weaver rule:
The Court finds that Adams adequately alleges that a natural and probable consequence of [the hospital] disclosing false information about Adams to Security Collection was that Security Collection would then report Adams’s “unpaid” invoice to CRAs, including Equifax. The Court also finds that Adams adequately alleges that [the hospital] presumptively authorized Security Collection to report the false indebtedness to Equifax to induce payment.
In other words, although it was the collection agency (and not the hospital) that made the false statement to Equifax, which in turn caused damage to Ms. Adams’ reputation and credit, the hospital remained potentially liable for the resulting harm. This is because the hospital knew (or should have known) that when it hired the collection agency and presented it with certain alleged debts, one of the things the agency would presumably do is communicate that information to one or more credit bureaus. Repetition and republication of the information was the natural and probable consequence of communicating the false information to the collection agency.