My son who attends an elite Christian private school was accused of stealing money by the principal, interrogated by several teachers and a police officer the day of the event. My son and several other boys offered to be searched but we're not. After everyone in the school heard of the theft, the money was later found in a public place on campus where the principal then also learned that my son had been. The principal has concluded and pro ported that no one else could have done this and has punished my son by preventing him from attending a senior class trip. We had a meeting with the head of school where I confronted the principal and asked him if he had proof of my son's guilt where he refused to answer yes or no and would not relent in punishing my son even without proof. Everyone in the school knows about this event and is aware of the repercussions my son has to pay for this accusation. This principal has a reputation for calling people liars and then learning the truth later without making amends for his accusations.
If it is based on an opinion that itself is plausible under the facts it is not defamation.
This should not be considered legal advice and is intended for educational purposes only. It does not constitute a contract for legal services between any parties. Answers are given to questions for which there may be additional facts not mentioned which might change the legal issues or consequences.
Mr. Popovich apparently is not familiar with PA law. Calling a person a thief - when it is known that it is not true or doing so regardless that there is serious doubt that it is true - most likely will be found by a jury to be defamatory. If the statement was made "recklessly", then the Plaintiff need not prove actual harm to his reputation. A jury MUST PRESUME HARM to the Plaintiff and award compensation for such harm.
Nevertheless, I will let you judge as a jury would. The relevant portions of the PA Standard Jury Instruction for Defamation are as follows:
"A person otherwise liable for publishing a communication that is defamatory of another is responsible for all harm suffered by the person defamed as a result of that publication. ... A communication may be made by speaking or by writing words or by any other act or combination of acts that result in bringing an idea to another's attention.
A communication is defamatory if it tends to so harm the reputation of that person as to lower him or her in the estimation of the community [ e.g. school population could be deemed such a communication] .... Words are not defamatory merely because they are annoying or embarrassing to the person referred to in the communication. ... A communication is published when it is communicated by someone other than the person to whom it refers. ... It is not necessary for the plaintiff to be specifically named, in order for the communication to be defamatory. ... If you find that the communication, even if it was defamatory of the plaintiff, was substantially true, you will return a verdict in favor of the defendant and against the plaintiff. ... If you find that the communication was not substantially true and that it might reasonably have been understood by those ... to whom it was communicated, as defamatory of the plaintiff, you may return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. ... If you find that the communication, or any portion of it, was defamatory and not substantially true, you must determine whether it caused actual injury to the plaintiff. Actual injury can include impairment of reputation in the community, personal humiliation, mental anguish, and suffering. ... except where (maybe in your case) a Jury might find that it was published "recklessly": "when he or she does so despite serious doubts about the truth of the communication or when he or she possesses a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity but publishes it anyway."
In such a case, the Plaintiff need not prove that he "suffered emotional distress, mental anguish, and humiliation in order to [be] award[ed] damages for such harm."
One important point is that the statute of limitations in PA for such claims is ONE YEAR. Therefore, if you wish to press this claim, do not wait. See a personal injury attorney ASAP.
Furthermore, unlike a public school employee, a private school and/or its employee in Pennsylvania does not enjoy immunity from prosecution.
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