Sunday, November 07, 2004

Two Virginia defamation opinions by Justice Koontz

In Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees v. Jones, the Virginia Supreme Court in an opinion by Justice Koontz reversed the award for the plaintiff in a defamation case, concluding that the plaintiff had failed to prove that the alleged defamatory statement was false. At trial, the jury in Fredericksburg had awarded $150,000 compensatory and $350,000 punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $150,000. The Supreme Court reduced the damages to $0.

In Lindeman v. Lesnick, the Virginia Supreme Court in another opinion by Justice Koontz reversed the trial court on the issue of whether the alleged defamatory statements were privileged because they were made in connection with worker's compensation litigation. What happened in the case is instructive. The defendant was being treated by the plaintiff for his worker-related injuries, but wanted to get another doctor. He gave his lawyer some notes about of raw comments made by another doctor about the plaintiff doctor, and the lawyer accidentally sent them on to the insurance company. (The lawyer was also sued but later non-suited.) The notes said bad things about the doctor. The defendant claimed the notes he gave his lawyer were privileged because they related to his comp case. The trial court overruled the claim of privilege, because there were no ongoing proceedings in the comp case at the time of the communication. The case went to verdict in the Circuit Court for Williamsburg and James City County, and the jury awarded $350,000 compensatory and $25,000 punitive damages against the appellant. The Supreme Court agreed that the communication was not privileged, even though there was a potential for litigation.

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