In the recent Virginia Beach Circuit Court case of Oliver v. Cohen, the jury sided with a public figure in finding that comments made in a Facebook group defamed her and negatively impacted her campaign.
Dee Oliver, a resident of Virginia Beach, ran for city council in November of 2018. Just days before the election, defendant James Cohen, a local political activist, posted comments about Oliver in a popular local Facebook page with more than 9,000 members. The comments stated that Oliver had sex with a personal trainer in a hospital bathroom while the trainer was there to have heart surgery. The comments continued, suggesting that the trainer’s family was waiting in the room next door and could hear the interaction take place. In the post, Cohen also referred to Oliver as a “she-devil.”
Oliver was first made aware of these comments from a friend who saw Cohen’s post in the Facebook page. Oliver was shocked and infuriated reading the comments, as Cohen had formerly been a supporter of her candidacy for Virginia Beach City Council. Just two days after these comments were made in the Facebook group, Oliver lost the election.
At trial, Cohen alleged that he based his claims on information from Oliver’s estranged stepdaughter. Cohen never spoke with Oliver to confirm the story before posting about it in the Facebook group, despite knowing Oliver’s relationship with her stepdaughter had been strained. Oliver testified that the encounter never happened. She further spoke about the devastating impact Cohen’s comments had on her emotional state, and her reputation in the community. She claimed that the comments tarnished her good reputation and made her appear as “a woman of ill repute.”
To prove a claim for defamation in Virginia, a plaintiff must show: (1) publication; (2) of an actionable statement; (3) with the requisite intent. In addition, since Oliver was considered a “public figure,” she had to prove that Cohen posted the comments on Facebook with actual malice, which can be defined as a reckless disregard for the truth. Oliver’s attorney focused on providing clear and convincing evidence of this additional element of actual malice through private Facebook messages about the situation made by Cohen and hearing testimony from third parties at trial.
After deliberating for only two hours, the jury found that Cohen had lied and defamed Oliver and awarded her $5 million in damages. After the trial, Oliver’s attorney said that money was not the motivation for the lawsuit. Oliver initially filed suit for $10 million in damages, but her attorney stated in closing arguments that half of that amount would be sufficient to prove the point that Cohen acted recklessly and should be held liable. Oliver said she was thrilled to hear the jury’s verdict because it made a statement as to how serious the defamatory accusations were taken.
General Counsel, P.C. attorneys have extensive knowledge and experience with defamation cases throughout Virginia and the DC Metro area. If you need more guidance or information, contact General Counsel, P.C. today at 703-991-7973 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.