Do I Have a Defamation of Character Case?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
As a kid in school, rumors and gossip may seem harmless and fun, and silly words spread one day and forgotten the next. In the adult world, however, the power of words can be far more serious. Spreading rumors, particularly rumors that can put another person's life or reputation at risk, can actually be against the law.
When words tread into the realm of real-world implications, there may be cause for a defamation of character legal case, a process that can make amends for any damages caused.
Defamation of character refers to any spoken or written false statement about a person's actions or character that is presented as fact in a way that harms reputation.
Say, for example, someone starts a rumor that a prominent local businessman committed a horrible crime, which is later printed in the newspaper and discussed widely online. As such, he loses a large swathe of his customer base and has to close his company. If this statement turns out not to be true, the businessman has a solid case to sue for defamation of character.
Defamation of character comes in two forms: slander and libel. Slander applies to spoken statements, like a falsehood told at a press conference, while libel applies to written statements, like incorrect facts reported in an article.
In some states, defamation of character is a criminal offense, not simply a civil case, but prosecution is highly unlikely.
The burden of evidence falls on a plaintiff in this kind of civil case, so without plenty of backup to demonstrate libel or slander, as well as what kinds of consequences were experienced, a lawsuit is unlikely to work out.
In general, this means being able to provide the following evidence, but there can be differences from state to state:
- Some sort of false statement was definitively made. Note that opinions, parodies or anything that is actually true, even if it's something a subject doesn't want to be made public, does not count as a false statement.
- Third parties heard the false statement and interpreted it as truth. This means some sort of evidence that the statement was made, like in an article, at a speech, in a podcast, or shared on social media.
- Negligence or malice was involved in the statement of false information. For example, if a reporter printed false facts due to inadequate research, that could be considered negligence; if someone spread a rumor specifically to cause harm, that could constitute malice. Public figures typically need to meet the higher standard of showing malice in defamation cases.
- There was no privilege involved in a statement. Some kinds of statements, like when under oath during a court case, have stricter protections and may not qualify for a defamation case.
- Harm was experienced. Defamation of character must have provable negative consequences, like a loss of income, a loss of reputation or missed opportunities due to a compromised character. While being the target of negative rumors can be hurtful emotionally, this isn't enough to take a case to court.
There is also a burden of proof called defamation per se that involves proving a statement is truly defamatory. This usually relates to the nature of a spread falsehood. Something benign, like a lie about being divorced, may not meet the threshold, while an accusation of adultery or a felony crime likely would.
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Damages tend to come in two different forms in a successful defamation of character case: compensatory and punitive. Compensatory damages are intended to make up for personal consequences as a result of defamation. This can relate to a loss of income, like being fired from a job, or expenses related to repairing a reputation, like a press tour to correct falsehoods. It can also cover medical expenses, if defamation resulted in physical or emotional harm, or compensation for things like shame, mental anguish or the loss of quality of life.
Punitive damages, on the other hand, are used to punish the perpetrator, not make things right for the victim. These kinds of penalties are intended to dissuade further defamatory actions. However, this is not a common outcome and tends to be either limited in scope or only applicable when someone's actions are found to be truly outside the bounds of normal behavior. Spreading some rumors online may not result in punitive charges, but giving a series of TV interviews that ruined a politician's chances at office might.
Defamation of character can be very hard to prove, but in cases when consequences are immense, taking legal action can be an option to address harm to a person's reputation.
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