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Jury sides with prominent public figure in defamation suit — $5M verdict

Type of action: Defamation

Name of case: Oliver v. Cohen

Court: Virginia Beach Circuit Court

Case no.: CL 19-692

Tried before: Jury

Name of judge or mediator: Judge Beverly W. Snukals (Ret.)

Date resolved: 4/1/2022

Demand: $10,000,000

Offer: $250,000

Verdict or settlement: Verdict

Amount: $5,000,000

Attorneys for plaintiff (and city): Jeremiah A. Denton III and Christopher W. Palermo-Re, Virginia Beach

Description of case: Deona Branch Oliver, 62, a Virginia Beach resident with deep family roots in the community, ran for city council in November 2018. Local political activist James Haskel Cohen, 59, who formerly had been a long-time supporter of Oliver, published a scandalous accusation on a popular local Facebook group suggesting Oliver had sex with a gym trainer in a public bathroom within the hearing of the man’s family, while the man was hospitalized for heart surgery.

During her testimony, Oliver (and the alleged correspondent) denied the hospital sex had occurred and Oliver spoke about the devastating impact Cohen’s statement had on her reputation and emotional state. Plaintiff’s damage testimony was corroborated by witnesses, prominent in Virginia Beach business and politics, who testified to Oliver’s excellent prior reputation and to the injury to reputation caused by the defamatory statement. Three distinguished character witnesses also testified to Cohen’s “poor” and “questionable” reputation for truth and veracity in the community.

The case was politically sensitive because most of the parties and witnesses involved were prominent in local politics. Consequently, the entire Virginia Beach Circuit Court bench recused itself. Retired Judge and McCammon Group mediator Beverly W. Snukals heard the case and conducted a three-day jury trial on short notice.

As a “public figure,” Oliver had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Cohen had published with actual malice, i.e., reckless disregard for the truth. This was made possible, in part, through a trove of malicious “private messages” between him and third-parties, obtained through fiercely contested discovery, motions to compel, and show cause hearings.

Suit was filed for $10 million. After a year and a half of litigation, defendant offered to settle for $100,000. Plaintiff did not counter. Defendant increased his offer to $250,000 a few days before trial. Plaintiff did not counter.

The jury returned with a verdict of $5 million after deliberating less than two hours. Plaintiff’s counsel argued in closing that half of the ad damnum would probably be adequate compensation.

Plaintiff’s law firm provided case information.