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Pendleton v. Newsome

Supreme Court of Virginia

June 4, 2015

LAURA MARY-BETH PENDLETON
v.
MARCUS J. NEWSOME, ET AL

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND. Gregory L. Rupe, Judge.

Mark J. Krudys (Krudys Law Firm, on briefs), for appellant.

Julie A.C. Seyfarth, Assistant County Attorney; (Jeffrey L. Mincks, County Attorney; Stylian P. Parthemos, Deputy County Attorney, on brief), for appellees Marcus J. Newsome, Shawn Smith, Tim Bullis, Ed Witthoefft, and Patricia Carpenter.

John D. Gilbody, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General; Rhodes B. Ritenour, Deputy Attorney General, on brief), for appellee Jody Enoch.

PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, Millette and Kelsey, JJ., and Russell and Koontz, S.JJ. OPINION BY SENIOR JUSTICE CHARLES S. RUSSELL.

OPINION

Page 760

CHARLES S. RUSSELL, SENIOR JUSTICE.

This appeal arises out of an action to recover damages for defamation in which the circuit court sustained a demurrer and dismissed the complaint without leave to amend. The dispositive question is whether the complaint sets forth facts that, if taken as true, are sufficient to support a cause of action for defamation. We therefore focus on the allegations contained in the complaint.[1]

FACTS ALLEGED

On January 2, 2012, Amarria Denise Johnson was a seven-year-old first grade student at Hopkins Elementary School in Chesterfield County. Amarria died at the school that day as a result of a severe allergic reaction to a peanut provided to her by a classmate.

Amarria's mother, Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton (the plaintiff) brought this action in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond against six defendants: Marcus J. Newsome, who was Superintendent of the Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS), Shawn Smith, who was Assistant Director of Community Relations for CCPS, Jody Enoch, who was a Public Health Nurse Supervisor for the Chesterfield County Health Department (CCHD), Tim Bullis, Director of Community Relations for CCPS, Ed Witthoefft, who was Assistant Superintendent of CCPS, and Patricia M. Carpenter, who was Chair of the Chesterfield County School Board (collectively, the defendants).

The plaintiff was a licensed practical nurse. She had informed the school staff earlier in the school year that Amarria was severely allergic to certain food products, including peanuts. The plaintiff had also, the prior year, filled out a confidential school " Standard Health/Emergency Plan" signed by Amarria's pediatrician. The plan directed that Amarria receive Benadryl and an auto-injection of Epinephrine if she should ingest or have skin contact with certain allergens, including nuts. As required by school regulations, the plaintiff also brought to the school an " EpiPen Jr." for the injection of Epinephrine for the school's use in such an emergency. The school's clinic assistant, however, told the plaintiff to retain it for use at home. The plaintiff understood that the school maintained allergy medications for emergency use.[2]

On January 2, 2012, Amarria reported " bumps" and " scratching" in her neck shortly after ingesting the peanut but was not given either Benadryl or Epinephrine. She died soon thereafter.

The tragic death of the child received prompt and widespread publicity in news reports published by local, national, and international media. These reports contained many statements and comments made by the defendants.

Page 761

The gravamen of the plaintiff's claim is that those statements were maliciously designed to divert public indignation from the failures of CCPS and CCHD personnel to exercise proper care for the child by falsely implying and insinuating that the plaintiff had failed to inform the school authorities of the child's serious allergy, failed to furnish a doctor-approved emergency medical plan, and failed to furnish the school clinic with the required medications for use in such an emergency. The plaintiff contends that the defendants' statements were designed to convey the innuendo that she bore responsibility for the death of her child. The complaint asserts:

In the days following Amarria's death, when Ms. Pendleton was seeking answers to, and grieving from, the loss of her daughter, the Defendants undertook a public-relations smear campaign to deflect away from school and health officials, and onto Ms. Pendleton, responsibility for Amarria's death. The Defendants falsely implied, inferred, and/or insinuated, through direct statements, omissions of relevant facts, and use of innuendo, that Amarria's death was caused by Ms. Pendleton's alleged inactions -- specifically, failing to provide necessary information and medications to Amarria's school. In truth, as noted above, Ms. Pendleton had completed necessary paperwork and had provided Amarria's EpiPen Jr. to the Hopkins clinic assistant. Defendants' false statements -- made by inference, implication, and/or insinuation -- caused Ms. Pendleton to be pilloried by the public. Ms. Pendleton did attempt to explain her actual actions to the public. Her single voice, however, was not heard above the chorus of false statements spread by the Defendants, whose falsities were bolstered by the Defendants' employment positions, and were repeated over and over in the media. Persuaded by the Defendants' characterization of events, countless individuals, including the parents of other Chesterfield County Public Schools (" CCPS" ) students, concluded and declared that Ms. Pendleton was a bad mother -- the most hurtful and disparaging of labels.

STATEMENTS MADE BY THE DEFENDANTS[3]

In a public letter dated January 4, 2012 which was posted to CCPS's website on January 5, ...


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