Monday, May 2, 2011

Va. High Court Reinstates Defamation Claim Against Police Officer

Seal of Prince George County, VirginiaImage via WikipediaIn its 15-page decision Michael A. Lewis, Jr. v. Brian A. Kei et al (Record No. 100338), the Virginia Supreme Court last week ruled that a contractor who sued a Prince George County police officer was wrongly denied the opportunity to present his defamation claim to a jury.

The Virginia High Court ruled that Prince George County Circuit Court Judge James F. Dalton erred in sustaining the defendant's demurrer concerning Lewis's defamation claim. In November 2009, Judge Dalton dismissed the plaintiff's claims of defamation, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment.

Lewis spent 41 days in jail after he was wrongly accused in 2008 of attempted kidnapping of a 10-year-old boy. He sued Lt. Kei for purportedly making false statements that he approached the youth and ordered the boy to get into his truck.  The allegedly defamatory statements that appeared in The Petersburg Progress-Index quoted Lt. Kei as saying: "I think it's a good day since we got this guy in custody and hopefully everyone can rest a little bit easier." The article also quotes  the defendant as saying Lewis became angry and yelled at the youth for not getting into Lewis's truck.

The defense argued that the statements at issue were not susceptible to a defamatory meaning in that the statements at issue attributed to Lt. Kei were not verbatim and in any case, either were objectively true or statements of opinion. The Virginia Supreme Court, however, remanded the defamation claim back to the lower court, finding: "[T]he issue is not whether Lewis will be able to establish to the satisfaction of the jury that these statements defamed him, but whether the circuit court should have afforded him the opportunity to do so. 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."

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