In the age of social media, where people impulsively post false statements and personal attacks so quickly and often that they seem to outrun any accountability, a private person’s reputation is at constant risk. Virginia law does protect private citizens against such injury, though it is not always worthwhile to pursue litigation. Here we summarize the basic claims and considerations.
Indeed, Virginia courts have long held that a person’s right to “personal security includes his uninterrupted entitlement to enjoyment of his reputation.” Tronfeld v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 272 Va. 709, 713 (2006). Put another way, an individual has “a right not to be subjected to falsehoods that impugn their character.” Ziglar v. Media Six, Inc., 61 Va. Cir. 173 (Roanoke City Cir. Ct., 2003).
To bring any successful claim, a litigant must prove several “elements.” A typical private citizen must prove these elements to recover for defamation in Virginia: 1) the defendant made the statement about the plaintiff (not someone else); 2) the statement was provably false; and 3) the defendant knew the statement was false or, believing it to be true, lacked reasonable grounds for that belief. In some circumstances, a defendant can also be liable for acting negligently to ascertain the facts upon which the statement was based. But of these three elements, the hardest to prove is often the third—the intent and knowledge of the speaker about the falsity and baselessness of the statement.
If the statement fails to identify the defamation plaintiff by name, the plaintiff must connect the statement to him or herself through the allegations at issue and the contemporaneous facts surrounding the statement(s) (circumstantial evidence). A defamatory statement may be made directly, but may also be made “‘by inference, implication or insinuation.’” Fuste v. Riverside Healthcare Assoc., Inc., 265 Va. 127, 132 (2003).
The traditional damages a plaintiff can recover in a defamation case include those for actual, economic (monetary) loss; injury to personal and business reputation; and associated pain, embarrassment, humiliation or mental suffering.
However, in defamation cases, damage to reputation is not always something that causes an obvious economic loss (such as lost income). But a statement is defamatory per se (which allows damages without proof of economic loss) if it:
- Imputes to a person the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude which, if true, would subject the person to indictment and punishment;
- Imputes that a person is infected with some contagious disease that, if true, would exclude the person from society;
- Indicates that a person is unfit to perform the duties of his employment;
- Indicates that a person lacks integrity or is dishonest in performing the duties of his employment; or
- Prejudices a person in his or her profession or trade.
A defamation plaintiff may also recover damages for statements not defamatory per se, provided that the statements “contain an imputation that is ‘necessarily hurtful’ in its effect upon plaintiff’s business and must affect him in his particular trade or occupation.” Fleming v. Moore, 275 S.E.2d 632, 636 (1981).
When someone attacks your character with lies and falsehoods, it is always painful, but not always actionable in court. So, it is a good idea to consult counsel about whether you have a claim and if so, whether it is wise to pursue. Your reputation is important and worth protecting, but even the best claims cannot change the past.
When confronted with this dilemma, the lawyers at Munro Byrd, P.C., have experience in prosecuting and defending defamation cases. If you think you are the victim of defamation, we look forward to an opportunity to help vindicate your character. Please call us at (540) 283-9343. We look forward to helping you.
If you have questions about a defamation claim in Virginia, call us. We litigate such cases in Roanoke City and County, Montgomery County (Christiansburg, Blacksburg), Lynchburg, Abingdon, Martinsville, Rocky Mount, Wytheville, Bedford, Covington, Harrisonburg, Richmond, Charlottesville, Lexington, or Staunton. They practice in rural areas like Bath County, Campbell County, Giles County, Craig County, Smyth County, Alleghany County, Pulaski County, Franklin County, Campbell County, Carroll County, Patrick County, Floyd County, Stuart County, Pittsylvania County, Henry County, and Wythe County. They also frequently litigate in Virginia federal courts, including those divisions in Roanoke, Abingdon, Danville, Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, Alexandria, and Richmond.