Attorney Sues Adjuster for Defamation

A Nationwide insurance adjuster met with a personal injury claimant in an effort to settle a claim.  The claimant indicated he intended to select a certain attorney as his counsel.  The adjuster said that the attorney just took peoples’ money and that the attorney’s clients would receive more money if they dealt with the adjuster directly.

The lawyer (Tronfeld) sued and the trial court dismissed the case, stating that the statements of the adjuster were statements of opinion and thus not actionable.

The Virginia Supreme Court said that   "[u]nless Schmitt’s statements are opinion, they are sufficient to sustain a cause of action for defamation per se because the statements prejudice Tronfeld in his profession as an attorney at law. To state that an attorney “just takes people’s money” and that an attorney’s clients receive less for their claims because of the attorney’s services implies a combination of dishonesty, incompetence or the crimes of larceny by trick or obtaining money by false pretenses. … Such statements damage an attorney’s standing to engage in his or her chosen profession and carry the connotation that he or she lacks the integrity and fitness to practice law."

The Court then went on to say this:  "[W]e conclude that, whether considered individually or together, Schmitt’s statements “are capable of being proven true or false” and thus are actionable in defamation.  The statement “[t]hat Jay Tronfeld just takes people’s money” is capable of disproof by evidence, if adduced, that Tronfeld’s clients received monetary or other relief as a result of his legal services. It would not be a matter of opinion that Tronfeld takes a client’s money without rendering a service of value in return if Tronfeld, for example, produced evidence of a settlement or judgment he obtained for that client. Schmitt’s other statement, “that clients of Jay Tronfeld would receive more money [for their claims] if they had not hired Jay and had dealt with the adjuster [directly],” could similarly be proven false. The statement would not be opinion if the evidence showed a settlement or judgment Tronfeld obtained for a client which exceeded the offer made by an insurance company to the client prior to the retention of Tronfeld as his or her legal counsel. In this regard, Schmitt’s statements, whether considered separately or together, are analogous to the defendant’s statements in Fuste, that the plaintiff physicians had “abandoned” their patients. We held that statement was not opinion, but “capable of being proven true or false,” and thus actionable in a claim for defamation per se. Schmitt’s statements in the case at bar present a clear, if not clearer, case for proof as a matter of fact than the statements in Fuste. "  [Citations omitted.]

Read the opinion in Tronfeld v. Nationwide Ins. Co.  here.

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