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Virginia court reinstates defamation suit against officer

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  1. Libel and Privacy
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that a man who brought a defamation suit against a police officer should…

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that a man who brought a defamation suit against a police officer should have been able to argue his case in front of a jury.

Michael A. Lewis Jr., a contractor in Prince George County, sued Lt. Brian Kei of the Prince George County police department for defamation, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment in 2009. A Prince George County Circuit Court judge dismissed the claims in November 2009.

Lewis was falsely accused in 2008 of trying to abduct a 10-year-old boy and spent 41 days in jail. Lewis accused Kei of making false statements about how Lewis allegedly approached the child and ordered him into the truck, and that a neighbor stopped Lewis's attempt to "escape with the child," the Supreme Court's opinion said.

Kei was quoted as saying in a Petersburg Progress-Index story in 2008: "I think it’s a good day since we got this guy in custody and hopefully everyone can rest a little bit easier.” Kei also told the paper that “The more the juvenile declined, the suspect [Lewis] became more angry and began yelling at the juvenile.”

The defense's contention in support of the dismissal said there was no sustainable basis for the malicious prosecution and false imprisonment claims, and the statements in question could not be deemed defamatory. “Kei further contended that the claim for defamation could not be sustained because the statements attributed to Kei either were not verbatim quotes attributable to Kei, or if they were, they either were objectively true or statements of opinion,” the Supreme Court's opinion noted.

The court ruled that the circuit judge erred in dismissing the defamation claim. It upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the malicious prosecution and false imprisonment claims, and remanded the case back to the lower court to hear the defamation claim.

“Given the posture of this appeal, the issue is not whether Lewis will be able to establish to the satisfaction of a jury that these statements defamed him, but whether the circuit court should have afforded him the opportunity to do so,” the court decision said. “Because the amended complaint was adequate to state a basis upon which, if proven to the satisfaction of the jury, Lewis could assert a claim for defamation against Kei, we hold that the circuit erred in sustaining Kei’s demurrer as to that claim.”

Lewis’ attorney, Elliott P. Park, did not respond to a request for comment, but told The Washington Post that Park is pleased with the decision to revive the defamation suit. “It was a traumatic experience for our client,” Park said. “He wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

Kei’s attorney, Robert A. Dybing, did not respond to a request for comment.