Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton alleged school leaders used carefully crafted statements to blame her and deflect their own responsibility in the January 2012 death of seven-year-old Amarria Johnson. Johnson died from a severe allergic reaction after another student at Hopkins Elementary School gave her a peanut.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge Gregory Rupe initially ruled the lawsuit could proceed, however reversed that decision this month citing a recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling.
"The statements at issue in this case did not expressly mention Ms. Pendleton or her child by name," Judge Rupe remarked. "The comments steered clear of mentioning Ms. Pendelton's tragedy factually. The comments were generalized to the issue of school children with allergies."
Judge Rupe cited the recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling in Webb v. Virginian- Pilot Media Companies for his decision to reverse his stance on the Chesterfield case.
"The Webb decision makes it clear that the trial court in at least defamation by inference, implication, or insinuation cases must scrutinize the words used to determine whether they are legally defamatory," he wrote. "If the judge does not act as the 'gate keeper' the risk could be too high that the sympathies generated by any given case could cause a jury, or a judge for that matter, to award damages where the defamation is far from clear or where the words could not reasonably be understood to reach the point of a preponderance of the evidence."
Pendleton argued non-specific statements released by Chesterfield Schools following her daughter's death implied she was at fault.
"The School Officials, with concerns about liability, privacy and with a desire to calm the concerns of parents, fashioned a public response. Ms. Pendleton took this response as an outrageously defamatory suggestion that her child died because of her neglect and not the neglect of the school," Judge Rupe wrote. "Undoubtedly, she felt that the School Officials should tell the truth. She was convinced that the School Officials had by innuendo accused her of failing to do what she as a parent should have done for her severely allergic child."
Examples from the Chesterfield School System's response the judge highlighted included:
- Key... is a parent's responsibility
- The school relies on parents to follow through
- The plan is dependent on the parent's ability to inform the school...
- Parents/guardians ... are key to... keeping their child safe at school
- At the beginning of the school year, we sent information to parents...
The judge said Pendleton believed the general nature of school system's statement left others with the impression that she failed as a parent.
"Ms. Pendleton, no doubt, felt that the combined responses of the School Officials were a carefully crafted party-line press release strategy designed to deflect responsibility for Amarria's death away from the school system," Judge Rupe wrote. "Ms. Pendleton, no doubt, felt and still feels that the School Officials by innuendo blamed her for her child's death."
Pendleton's attorney said they planned to appeal the judge's ruling.
"We appreciate the time and attention that the Court gave to this issue," Pendleton's attorney Mark Krudys wrote in a statement. "Judge Rupe made clear that this was a very difficult legal question for him and he went back and forth in his own mind as to what to do. We respectfully believe that the Court ultimately reached a conclusion that is contrary to existing Virginia law. We plan to appeal.”
Judge Rupe said while he felt much sympathy for Pendleton and her loss, he could not stretch that sympathy to "hold the School Officials liable for defamation."
Pendleton's wrongful death lawsuit was not impacted by this ruling.
When asked for a comment, a spokesman for the Chesterfield Schools System deferred to the county attorney. The county attorney has not yet responded to our request for a comment.
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