Defamation Attorneys

Virginia Defamation Attorneys

Virginia law recognizes the basic rights of individual security and the uninterrupted entitlement to the enjoyment of one’s reputation.   As such, Virginia prohibits defamation.  To defame a person is to attack his or her good name, thereby injuring his or her reputation.  Generally speaking, defamation is divided into two categories:

  1. written defamatory statements, known as libel; and
  2. spoken defamatory statements, known as slander.

In Virginia, there are four basic elements that constitute a compensable defamation claim:

  1. publication or the dissemination of information;
  2. an actionable statement;
  3. intent; and
  4. damages.

In other words, defamation is a false statement of fact that is published or communicated to another person and causes injury to the subject of the statement.

To be actionable in a lawsuit, the statement must be both false and defamatory.  The plaintiff bears the burden of proving that the statement is false, and truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim.  Likewise, statements expressing an opinion are typically not actionable.  The statement must be more than merely unpleasant or unflattering.

The established test for determining whether statements are defamatory, as stated by the Supreme Court of Virginia, is to examine the damaging statements in light of how they would be understood by a jury:

Although varying circumstances often make it difficult to determine whether particular language is defamatory, it is a general rule that allegedly defamatory words are to be taken in their plain and natural meaning and to be understood by courts and juries as other people would understand them, and according to the sense in which they appear to have been used. . . . In determining whether the words and statements complained of . . . are reasonably capable of the meaning ascribed to them by innuendo, every fair inference that may be drawn from the pleadings must be resolved in the plaintiff’s favor.

Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, Inc., 196 Va. 1, 82 S.E.2d 588, 591-92 (1954) (citations omitted).

If the court finds the statement to be actionable and published, it will then award compensatory damages – those damages which seek to compensate the plaintiff for the harm that his or her reputation has suffered due to the defamatory statement.   In Virginia, punitive damages – damages awarded to punish the defendant for his bad acts – may be awarded if the plaintiff can prove the defendant acted with malice.  Malice requires proof that the defendant purposely or recklessly distributed false information about the person with the intent to harm that person’s reputation.

Defamation actions frequently arise in the context of an employee’s discharge.  There are many possible statements that may be deemed defamatory in that context, such as statements that the employee was discharged for alcoholism, inefficiency, lack of punctuality, and unreliability.  However, there is no precise benchmark to gauge whether the statement is defamatory.  Rather, Virginia acknowledges the fact-specific nature of the inquiry as to what is potentially defamatory and that the comment must contain a factual statement which can be proven false.  See Fuste v. Riverside Healthcase Assoc., 265 Va. 127, 133 (2003).

Virginia also recognizes a type of defamation action called defamation per se.  Unlike a standard defamation claim, damages are presumed in defamation per se actions, meaning that a plaintiff will not need to show that they were actually harmed by the defamatory statement.  Defamation per se arises when the statements are of the four following types:

  1. Those which impute to a person the commission of some criminal offense involving moral turpitude, for which the party, if the charge is true, may be indicted and punished.
  2. Those which impute that a person is infected with some contagious disease, where if the charge is true, it would exclude the party from society.
  3. Those which impute to a person unfitness to perform the duties of an office or employment of profit, or want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of such an office or employment.
  4. Those which prejudice such person in his or her profession or trade.

Tronfeld v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 272 Va. 709, 713 (2006).

If you or someone you know has been defamed through spoken word or in writing, contact the Virginia Defamation Attorneys at MartinWren, P.C., at 434-817-3100.  We can examine your case and advise you on the best way to recover from the damage to your reputation.

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