A Recent Virginia Case Involving Defamation by Implication
About three weeks ago, the Virginia Supreme Court decided Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Corporation. From my perspective, it is significant how the Court decided in favor of the newspaper. I anticipate that the case will be cited frequently in motions to attempt to embolden judges to dismiss defamation suits at the demurrer stage of litigation.
Based on the facts as reported in the decision, this case involved an alleged defamatory article about an altercation among high school students that resulted in the father of one of the students being assaulted.
Boiled down to the relevant points, Student A went to the home of Student B to confront Student B about a school-related disagreement. Student A’s father sent Student B and his cohorts away. Later, Student A and his brother went to Student B’s home, which resulted in Student B’s father being assaulted.
For their part on the incidents, Student A and his brother were prosecuted and convicted of misdemeanors. The school system allowed Student A to stay at his school and compete in varsity sports events. In contrast, the school system required Student B to transfer schools, and he instead decided to obtain a GED.
Why did the school system treat Student A, who was convicted of assault, more favorably than Student B? It is not clear from the article. The article did, however, reference that Student A’s father was an administrator within the school system and a former high school coach. Student A’s father sued for defamation based on the theory that the article insinuated that he used his position in an unethical manner to gain preferential treatment for his son.
A jury seemed to agree because it awarded the plaintiff $3 million. The trial judge set the verdict aside, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court on appeal.
The Supreme Court ruled that the determination of whether a defamatory implication reasonably can be drawn from words actually used in an article is a legal determination, not a factual one. Therefore, a jury should not have been in the position to determine whether the article insinuated that Student A’s father took some affirmative act to gain preferential treatment for his son. Rather, the judge should have dismissed the case at the demurrer stage.
This is an interesting position from a lawyer’s perspective, given that the Virginia Supreme Court repeatedly has admonished trial judges not to short circuit litigation at the demurrer stage. Leaving aside any broader policy implications associated with the press, the case gives precedent for judges to stop defamation suits from reaching juries in cases involving defamation by implication. For that reason, it has significance.
The case can be found here:http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1122024.pdf