Ever since Rolling Stone’s shocking November 2014 story on an alleged gang rape at UVA began to fall apart, media watchers have speculated whether the magazine would end up the defendant in a defamation suit. The local chapter of Phi Kappa Psi, where the story’s key figure, a student named Jackie, claimed to have been gang raped in 2012, announced in early April it would sue. But the first filings against the magazine came not from the fraternity brothers but from Nicole Eramo, the associate dean of students whose lawyers say was falsely painted as the story’s “chief villain.”
Libby Locke, a partner at an Alexandria-based firm that specializes in defamation law, announced on May 12 that Eramo filed a suit that morning in Charlottesville Circuit Court seeking $7.5 million in compensatory damages and another $350,000 in punitive damages. In civil courts, the latter are awarded in special cases where conduct is considered especially egregious.
“The Rolling Stone article has caused so much damage and reputational harm, both to me and also to so many others,” said Eramo, the dean in charge of advising student victims of sexual assault, in a press release sent out by the firm. “I am filing this defamation lawsuit to set the record straight —and to hold the magazine and the author of the article accountable for their actions in a way they have refused to do themselves.”
At the heart of her 80-page complaint is the repeated assertion that the story made claims about Eramo that aren’t true, including her attitude toward Jackie and the actions she took when the student came to her, and that caused irreparable damage to her professional reputation.
But the suit goes further. It claims, among other things, that freelance journalist Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors deliberately avoided pushing Jackie for documentation of her case despite having doubts, wrote the story so that it concealed the fact that Jackie was their sole source of information about her alleged assault and lied in later interviews about the thoroughness of Erdely’s reporting.
All that amounts to “reckless disregard for the truth,” the suit claims. Those are magic words in defamation law. Such disregard is required to establish “actual malice,” a necessity if the plaintiff is looking to collect punitive damages—or if the plaintiff is defined by the law as a “public figure.”
Most likely, Eramo will be treated as a private figure in this suit, said Charlottesville attorney Lloyd Snook, and “it’s a hard burden to meet” to be awarded punitive damages. But seeking them is a strategic move, said Snook, who frequently handles defamation suits but is not connected to this one.
“It gives them the right to talk about actual malice—intentional, wanton, willful disregard for the rights of others and all that language,” Snook said. “It gives them an excuse to get the jury fired up.”
Many are already fired up. An online campaign has raised more than $26,000 to help cover Eramo’s legal fees. The administrator is anonymous—Locke would only say it was set up by “friends and supporters”—but the long list of donors includes several of Eramo’s UVA colleagues.