The Virginia Supreme Court upheld a 2010 ruling that a former Newport News judge defamed a former court official when she told a newspaper the court official was “institutionalized.”
The court ruled earlier this month that Verbena Askew, a former circuit court judge, must pay Brenda Collins, a former administrator of the Newport News Drug Court, $350,000 with interest after Askew told the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., “Collins was institutionalized — that’s the only way you qualify for family leave,” according to the court opinion.
The jury found this statement to be false and defamatory, according to the opinion.
Though the statement made by Askew was never published in the Daily Press, evidence presented in the defamation trial showed that the staff of the Daily Press discussed the statement made by Askew at staff meetings, according to the court opinion. "Publication" does not necessarily mean published or broadcast in a traditional news medium.
"For purposes of a libel lawsuit, publication occurs when information is negligently or intentionally communicated in any medium," according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press' First Amendment Handbook.
Askew did not challenge the court’s finding that the statement was defamatory, but instead argued that the jury verdict should have been set aside because the defamatory statement was never published, and argued that the court should lower the amount of the judgment.
In 1999, Collins accused Askew and the City of Hampton of sexual harassment. Askew later signed a letter of understanding to not make derogatory comments about Collins, and Collins reached a settlement with the city of Hampton.
These documents were requested in 2003 during considerations for Askew’s reappointment by the General Assembly. Some documents were also released to the Daily Press, according to the court opinion. The newspaper published an article on Jan. 21 of that year, but did not include Askew’s statement.
Some statements are considered so damaging to one's reputation that a plaintiff does not have to show actual damage, which may include lost wages. These statements are called defamatory per se. Statements suggesting a person is unfit for his or her employment fall into this category, according to the court.
The court said because Askew did not challenge the court's jury instructions on defamation per se, “the jury needed no proof of damages suffered by Collins on which to predicate its compensatory award.”
In 2004, Collins filed a complaint against Askew, the Daily Press and an employee of Hampton, Va., and later the city of Hampton. Collins settled with all defendants except Askew, receiving $120,000.
Calls placed to Askew and Collins' attorney Harris Butler were not returned.
Related Reporters Committee resources:
· The First Amendment Handbook: 1. Libel