2015-06-10 / News

Defamation suit against school officials heading back to court

By Jim McConnell

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled last week that a Richmond Circuit Court judge erred in dismissing a Chesterfield woman’s defamation lawsuit against several current and former local school officials, clearing the way for the case to be heard by a jury.

“Obviously we are very pleased with the ruling,” said Mark Krudys, attorney for Laura Pendleton, who filed the $1.3 million lawsuit against Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome and five others following the January 2012 death of her daughter, Amarria Johnson.

Johnson was 7 years old and a student at Hopkins Elementary when she died from a severe allergic reaction after eating a peanut given to her by another student.

Pendleton’s suit alleges that school officials participated in a concerted effort to deflect blame for her daughter’s accidental death and create the false impression that Pendleton herself was responsible.

She seeks $1 million in actual damages and $350,000 in punitive damages from the defendants, which include Newsome and former School Board member Patty Carpenter; former Assistant Superintendent Ed Witthoefft; Jody Enoch, public health nurse supervisor for the Chesterfield Health Department; Tim Bullis, the school system’s community relations director; and Shawn Smith, assistant director of community relations.

In her lawsuit, Pendleton maintains that she brought an EpiPen to Hopkins Elementary prior to her daughter’s death, only to be rebuffed by a clinic aide who stated that the school already had one that Johnson could use in case of an allergic reaction.

Despite Pendleton’s attempt to give the school her daughter’s life-saving medication, the suit claims, school officials made a series of public statements in the days following Johnson’s death that focused solely on parents’ role in the execution of the school system’s severe allergy plan.

“I think you have to evaluate their words in the context of what was going on,” Krudys said during a hearing last year. “They were unmistakably saying, ‘We can’t do anything unless the parent brings in an EpiPen.’ They knew the significance of their statements. They were clearly saying that this woman is to blame.

“They were manipulating information, and it was effective,” Krudys added. “Ms. Pendleton was pilloried in the press. I think she should have her day in court.”

The six defendants have denied those allegations, arguing that none of their public statements mentioned Pendleton by name or blamed her for her daughter’s death.

When he dismissed the suit in April 2014, Richmond Circuit Court Judge Gregory L. Rupe concluded that public statements made by Newsome and the other defendants did not defame Pendleton.

Rupe’s ruling followed an opinion issued by the Virginia Supreme Court in a similar case earlier last year.

In its review of Webb v. The Virginian- Pilot, the court ruled that the original trial judge had erred in allowing that case to go before a jury – that, in cases of defamation by inference, insinuation or innuendo, it is the responsibility of the judge to scrutinize the words used and determine whether they are legally defamatory.

Without the trial judge acting as “gatekeeper,” the justices wrote, there exists too great a risk that a jury acting out of sympathy to plaintiffs could award damages in cases where evidence of defamation is far from conclusive.

“Ms. Pendleton’s case is just such a case,” Rupe concluded in a letter of opinion that declared that school officials’ multiple statements did not rise to the level of defamation

“A fact finder may well focus too much upon egregious tragedy weighing upon the plaintiff, coupled with a perceived insensitivity on the part of the defendant,” Rupe wrote. “The judge cannot do this. The judge must look at the exact words used.”

Rupe acknowledged that his first inclination was to “let the jury figure it out,” but noted that the Webb decision was a “game-changer” in that regard.

The Supreme Court, however, said that Rupe’s reliance on the Webb case was “misplaced.”

In an opinion written by Senior Justice Charles S. Russell, the court noted that “in this case it is clear that any innuendo proceeding from the defendants’ statements about the death of a child was aimed directly at the mother and at no other person.

“The statements were published, and were capable of conveying the defamatory innuendo that the plaintiff bore responsibility for her child’s death,” the opinion reads.

The reversal of Rupe’s ruling sends Pendleton’s lawsuit back to the Richmond Circuit Court, where attorneys will complete the discovery process prior to the case being heard by a jury.

Pendleton’s $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the nurse and clinic aide who were working at Hopkins Elementary on the day of Johnson’s death is expected to go to trial in Chesterfield Circuit Court in October, Krudys said.

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