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Judge dismisses mom’s lawsuit after daughter died at Chesterfield school

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – A Richmond judge dismissed the defamation lawsuit a Chesterfield mother filed against Chesterfield Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome and other leaders in the Chesterfield County School System following the death of her daughter.

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.

Seven-year-old Amarria Johnson

Seven-year-old Amarria Johnson

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.”

Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton with Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell during the 2012 signing of Amarria’s Law which direct schools to keep epinephrine pens on hand to help student who suffer allergic reactions

Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton with Governor Bob McDonnell during 2012 signing of Amarria’s Law which direct schools to keep epinephrine pens on hand to help students who suffer allergic reactions.

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.

Watch CBS 6 News at 6 for updates on this story.

21 comments

    • Joe

      Eh, more like:

      The judge doesn’t feel that a canned response from a guy/gal behind a PR job warrants the current standard of defamation of character.

      But, if you want to blame race for everything you see or hear, then by all means, make yourself look like an idiot every day, I’ll get a laugh out of it.

    • Learn Grammar

      Latosha,

      No body has commented on your lack of grammar. Let me go over 5-6th grade English.

      “THAT JUGE DO NOT CARE BECASE SHE IS AFRICAN AMERICAN”

      Should be, “The Judge does not care because she is an African American”

      “WHY YOU PLAYING UP TO THEM PEOPLE”

      Who is them people? Either way, it should be “Why are you playing up to those people”. Your reference to ‘playing’ is not well understood.

      “THAT GIRL DYED BECASE OF RACISMS”

      Dyed is the act of coloring in the past tense. Racisms, is not a plural form of ‘racism’, nor is it verb. It should be “That girl died due to racism”

      Good luck on your career of journalism.

  • lori tanner

    The death is very sad but the mom’s reaction to official school statements is wacky. If we thought she wanted to harm her own child we would assume she would have done so by third grade. Secondly judging by nearby county schools responses to community events, she should taken anything a school system says too seriously/personally.

  • Tiffany

    Latosha, you are an idiot! I am an African American and this case had nothing to do with race. People like you are the reason why this country will never get over racism. Yes, racism still exists and probably always will, but stop trying to play the race card in every freaking situation. Geez!

    • Joe

      Honestly, I think it’s just some idiot behind the keyboard making outlandish statements in effort to troll the community.

      See, I can pretend to be “Brand Y person”, and make ignorant remarks. The subsequent reaction by the community is then to frown at “Brand Y”, or illicit other ignorant type of responses.

      • Michelle

        Stop with the race card. Yes people are racist, yes they will always be, no there is nothing anyone can do but break the circle and from comments like yours that circle will never be broken. Not once did the school mention the parent or the child by name. They simply said “parents” and yes it is the parents responsibility to let the school know about allergies and its the parents repsonsibility to have an epi pen at the school in cases that this one. Its sad that a young girl died but facts are facts. Responsibility falls on the parent not the school officials. They don’t know they are not the ones taking the child to and from doctors appts the parents are. Get a grip on reality Latosha……

      • athynz

        The child died from having a peanut allergy and being given a peanut. Yes it’s tragic, yes it’s sad, and yes CCPS needs to get their act straight and accept some responsibility. But no, race was not behind the decision to dismiss the case. So is agreeing with a white person “playing up to those people”? And how is THAT not racist?

  • greg

    tiffany,thanks for your comment.Latosha you are just one of those oh woos me blacks that are not smart enough to make your race rise above and kept them down.Everytime a black like you speaks you set back us all from moving on.Now if you would only take on child support from your babies daddy as you have this we would all be better off

  • Belsma

    I don’t think there is any reason to bash Latosha. I honestly believe she was raised that way, just as many white folks were raised that way. People are not born racists or haters, it is taught and it’s sad. The cycle needs to be broken by all. The death of a young child is always sad and I will never understand why they are “taken” from us, but yes, let this be a stepping stone to fix things within the school system.

  • sw

    I’m sorry about this tragic accident. It is such a sad situation. My nephew has a severe peanut allergy. He knew before he started school never to eat any peanuts and not to take food from anyone without knowing what was in it. Everyone who have had children in Chesterfield County knew that if your child needed any kind of medicine that a note had to come from the doctor and it had to be given to the nurse with the appropriate papers. I am not trying to blame this mother but it was clear that they did not have the epi pen or the documents at the school to administer the medicine. I remember this story very well and she has a need to blame someone which I understand but it was not the schools fault the medicine was not available. I totally agree schools should have epi pens but at the time that is not how things were and I have had 5 children go through CCPS and it was always the same when it came to any medication. This is not a case this woman should win. Accidents happen and that is what this was. I don’t think she should win a wrongful death suit either. The school followed all rules that were in place so how she thinks they can be responsible I don’t understand.

    • sw

      I am curious why this case was being heard by a Richmond judge and not a Chesterfield County judge. Was the venue moved or is this mother actually a resident of Richmond instead of Chesterfield?

  • Courtney

    Just because laws designate equal rights to all races on paper does not mean that race has no longer become a eminent factor in society. Black women have always been subjected to the stereotype of being unfit mothers and media has played largely into that. Just because she challenges that does not make her greedy.She just wants the the truth to be known and for someone to be accountable.

  • Belsma

    All students with medical/prescription needs whether they need an Epi pen, or an nebulizer, or a simple inhaler for allergies, need to take the correct steps to make sure the school is supplied with those meds. It’s fairly clear that a school age child cannot even carry Midol on them. The rules are strict, but they must be followed. If people, as parents don’t want to follow the rules, then your children will be punished.

  • Cyborg Bill

    Judge Rupe: “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 … 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.”

    Sounds to me like the judge, in classic leftist/elitist fashion, simply does not trust common people to “get it right”. We poor dumb schlubs cannot be trusted to arrive at a “proper” verdict any more than we can manage our own affairs. The jury system, foundation of western justice has a major, fatal flaw in the minds of the elites. Ignorant sobs like us sit on juries. People who the elites do not trust to know how to pour urine out of a boot make up the most critical part of the “justice” system.

  • tw

    I think that it’s were an accident that the child at the candy and didn’t know peanut were in the candy , but the lost her child and the school not respone for the lost.if the mother didn’t have everything for the school to go by about her daughter allergies. The school is not responsible. I hope mother can go on with her life since the judge make his decision

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