If a defendant claims he defamed the plaintiff only because he was “following orders,” acting at the instruction of his boss or other principal, and the evidence supports this, can a defamation claim be brought against the person who gave the order? In a word, yes. If a principal instructs his agent to make a public statement and that statement defames the reputation of another person or entity in a manner that would be actionable under Virginia law, the defamed party’s remedy is not limited to a lawsuit against the individual speaker; he may also pursue a claim against whoever is ultimately responsible the statement having been made.
Vicarious liability principles apply to defamation actions just as they do in tort law generally: the principal is normally liable for the tortious conduct of his agent. (See Mann v. Heckler & Koch Def., Inc., No. 1:08cv611 (JCC), 2008 WL 4551104 at *8 (E.D. Va. Oct. 7, 2008) (denying motion to dismiss defamation claim on basis that employer could be vicariously liable for employee’s defamatory statement); Fuste v. Riverside Healthcare Ass’n, Inc., 265 Va. 127, 134 (2003) (recognizing that defamation liability may be founded upon statements made by an authorized agent)). Corporations, for example, can only act through the conduct of their employees. If an employee commits libel or slander in the course of performing his or her duties for the employer, the employer itself can be held liable for defamation.