- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Chesterfield County woman is entitled to a trial on her claim that school officials smeared her reputation by implying she was responsible for her 7-year-old daughter’s death, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The justices unanimously reinstated Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton’s defamation lawsuit against six current or former Chesterfield County school officials. A Richmond Circuit Court judge had thrown out the lawsuit, which alleges that officials portrayed Pendleton as a bad mother in statements to other parents and the media after the January 2012 death of Amarria Denise Johnson.

The Hopkins Road Elementary School first-grader died after suffering an allergic reaction to a peanut given to her by another child on the playground. Pendleton had told school staff about her daughter’s food allergies and filed a health plan signed by a doctor spelling out treatment for any allergic reaction. Pendleton claims that school officials, intent on deflecting public attention to their own failings, falsely insinuated that she had shirked those responsibilities.

In one news article, for example, a school official stated: “Parents/guardians of a student with a severe allergy are key to the process of keeping their child safe at school. They are at the center of developing a plan that works for their child. Execution of the plan is dependent on the parent’s ability to inform the school of needs and to provide the appropriate resources.”

School officials made similar statements in other news reports and in emails to parents who had expressed concerns about the safety of their children. The court said the comments may be technically accurate, but under the circumstances Pendleton perhaps can prove that they conveyed the “defamatory innuendo” that she was to blame for Amarria’s death.

Pendleton’s attorney, Mark J. Krudys, said he was pleased with the ruling.

“The Supreme Court of Virginia has preserved the right of the people to bring an action for defamation by insinuation, inference and innuendo,” he said. “We look forward to presenting the case to a Richmond jury.”

Assistant County Attorney Julie A.C. Seyfarth, who represented the school officials, did not immediately respond to a telephone message.

Pendleton also has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against school officials. A trial in that case is set for late October in Chesterfield County.

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