Washington Case Law Update: How Do you Determine if a Statement is Defamatory?

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Washington Case Law Update: How Do you Determine if a Statement is Defamatory?

From the desk of Kyle D. RileyIn Washington, a defamatory statement is a false statement concerning another. The court must decide whether the statement is capable of defamatory meaning as a matter of law. If so, it is a question for the jury whether recipients of the statements understood them to be defamatory. Read on to see how courts analyze these claims.

Claims Pointer: In this case arising out of comments regarding a teacher allegedly distributing medication to her students in the classroom, the Washington Court of Appeals determined that because the statements did not state or imply that the teacher violated school policy by having done so, the statements were not defamatory as a matter of law. The case provides an excellent examination of several of the elements of defamation.

Tollefsen v. Jantz, No. 75117-4-I, Washington Court of Appeals (August 7, 2017) (unpublished)

Lane Tollefsen (“Tollefsen”) was a teacher at King’s Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Gregory Jantz (“Dr. Jantz”), a psychologist and best-selling author, is a prominent figure in the community. In 2010, Dr. Jantz’s son, Gregg, was a student in Tollefsen’s sixth grade class. Gregg was disruptive and exhibited serious behavioral issues and problems. At a parent-teacher conference with the Jantzes in November 2010, Tollefsen recommended that Gregg be tested for “attention and focus.” The Jantzes did not take the suggestion well and blamed Gregg’s behavioral problems on Tollefsen’s teaching. The following month, Mrs. Jantz arrived early for the class Christmas party, and Tollefsen asked her to come back after class had concluded. Mrs. Jantz later accused Tollefsen of yelling at her in front of the class and insisted that Gregg be transferred to another teacher, which King’s Elementary did. Because it was rare for the school to take such an action, the incident was well known...

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