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Ad damnum, defamation cases settled while on appeal

Alan Cooper//January 7, 2011

Ad damnum, defamation cases settled while on appeal

Alan Cooper//January 7, 2011//

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Don’t look for rulings from the Supreme Court of Virginia in the Spear ad damnum case or the much-litigated defamation claim of a former Raytheon Technical Services Co. executive.

Both have been settled under confidential terms, less than two weeks before a decision was due in the Raytheon case next Thursday and less than a week before argument in the ad damnum case that had been set for Monday.

In Spear v. Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, Record No. 092451, Loudoun County Circuit Judge James H. Chamblin granted a motion to dismiss a case that had been nonsuited because the plaintiff attempted to raise the ad damnum from $325,000 to $500,000 when she refiled the suit.

The increase in the amount sued for was a fundamental change in the nature of the case so that the plaintiff did not recommence the same action within six months as Virginia Code § 8.01-229(E)(3) requires, Chamblin ruled.

She had sued the MWAA and the company that had the contract for the “people movers” that take passengers from the airplane gates to the main terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport. She contended that their negligence caused her to fall from her wheelchair and injure were shoulder.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys were quick to criticize the ruling, and the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus curia brief with the Supreme Court.

No other judge appears to have adopted Chamblin’s rationale and at least three judges – Franklin County Circuit Judge William N. Alexander II, Rockingham County Circuit Judge James Lane and Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne – have rejected it.

The defamation case, Hyland v. Raytheon Technical Services Co., Record No. 092242, was before the Supreme Court for a third time. On its first trip, the court reversed a $1.85 million verdict for Cynthia Hyland, who contended that her supervisor had defamed her in a performance evaluation.

Three of the five allegedly defamatory statements were opinion, and it wasn’t clear whether the jury based its verdict on those statements as well as statements that might have supported the jury’s verdict, the court said in sending the case back.

On remand, the trial judge entered summary judgment for Raytheon after concluding that Hyland had admitted to elements of the allegedly defamatory statements. The Supreme Court reversed, saying a jury could have found for Hyland if it had considered the statements as a whole and sent the case back again.

This time, a jury entered a defense verdict, but the high court granted Hyland’s petition for appeal on her contention that the judge had misinstructed the jury.

Hyland’s attorney, Elaine Charlson Bredehoft of Reston, said settlement of the case was complicated by a conflict between Raytheon’s insurer, which wanted to settle the case, and the company, which did not. The insurer finally prevailed, she said.

That litigation finally appears to be over, but the issue in Spear may yet make it to the Supreme Court.

Fairfax attorney Kenneth L. Crosson said Chamblin was prepared to dismiss a case of his on the same ground but had delayed ruling until the court decided Spear.

If Chamblin reaffirms his ruling in Spear in that case, an appeal is not certain, Crosson said, because the amount at issue is much lower than the claim in Spear.

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