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How does Virginia handle claims of defamation, slander and libel?

| Dec 30, 2020 | Civil Litigation

If someone has said, written or published comments that damaged your reputation in Virginia, you may be considering whether to sue for defamation. 

Each state treats defamation claims differently, so it is important to know the law to anticipate potential hurdles and defenses. 

Defamation in Virginia

Defamation under Virginia law is the publication of harmful, untrue statements; the speaker, writer or publisher may be liable for such statements. Slander and libel are two types of defamation, and Virginia law treats these essentially the same way it treats defamation claims. Slander refers to spoken defamation while libel refers to written defamation. 

To qualify as defamatory, the statement in question must be false, and it must have harmed your reputation in some way — whether by damaging your standing in a community or social group, by hurting your career or causing some other type of reputational damage. 

Defamation claims

To bring a successful defamation claim, you generally need to show that the statement in question harmed you measurably or demonstrably. For example, if your church excused you as a deacon in response to a publication denigrating your character, you may use that as evidence of harm. 

Because Virginia ascribes to the doctrine of defamation per se, certain statements do not require a demonstration of actual harm. In other words, there are some defamatory statements that the law condemns regardless of how they have affected you in reality. 

Defamation per se includes claims that you have committed crimes of moral turpitude, that you are essentially unfit for your professional position or that you have contracted a disease. Virginia also broadly includes any statements that would damage your career. 

If the defendant’s intent was malicious, you may also be able to receive compensation without demonstrating actual harm. 

Defenses to defamation

When bringing a defamation claim, the statement in question must be untrue, and it must be a factual statement. If a court finds that the statement is essentially true, they may dismiss your claim — even if the defendant had some of the details wrong. Statements of opinion are generally not defamatory, but the defendant may not frame claims of fact as opinions in order to avoid liability. 

In Virginia, the defense of fair report also applies. This means that the defendant may avoid liability if he or she was repeating claims from a qualifying news agency. This defense has specific requirements, however, so defendants should use it carefully. 

The statute of limitations for defamation claims is one year, but certain factors can extend this time frame. For example, if you learn the identity of the speaker or writer some time after the publication, the year begins tolling once you learn of his or her identity rather than the date of the statement.