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What Is a Defamation Lawsuit?

Sarah Edwards | November 04, 2022

Sarah Edwards
Legal Expert
Sarah Edwards, BS

Sarah Edwards is a professional researcher and writer specializing in legal content. An Emerson College alumna, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from the prestigious Boston institution.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Summary: There are different types of defamation, including libel, slander, and defamation per se. Libel entails making untrue statements about someone in a published format, while slander only involves oral statements. If you’re being taken to court for defamation, you have defenses that can protect you in your case.

Defamation occurs when someone makes a false statement about another individual that results in some harm to the person or their reputation. The statement made can be oral or in writing. States recognize two main types of defamation: libel and slander.

Libel involves making an untrue statement about someone else in published form. The statement can be written or recorded on video or an audio tape. The defendant must share the information with a third party for the claim to succeed.

Slander occurs when someone makes a false statement about another person orally. The information must be shared with a third person and cause damage to the victim’s reputation or livelihood.

If you’re being taken to court for defamation, you are the defendant in the lawsuit, and the plaintiff is the person who claims you have defamed them. With that in mind, let’s explore different types of defamation, examples, and how you can defend yourself in a defamation case.

What is defamation per se?

Defamation per se is another variation of defamation. In a defamation per se case, the statements made are so severe that the court automatically assumes the victim suffered harm.

Statements that meet the definition of defamation per se include:

  • Accusing someone of committing a serious crime
  • Telling someone else the person has a contagious disease, like HIV
  • Telling others that the person is cheating on a spouse
  • Claiming the person is unethical at work

Even though the court automatically assumes the content of the messages was defamatory, the plaintiff must still prove that the defendant made them.

What are some examples of libel, slander, and defamation per se?

Now that we’ve established the definition of defamation and its different types, let’s walk through a few examples of each type of defamation.

Below is an example of slander:

Example: Consider a woman, Mary, who is mad at her best friend, Liz. Mary tells Liz’s husband, Sam, that she is a liar who will only cause him pain. Sam grows concerned and decides to file for divorce from Liz due to Mary’s statement. Liz may have grounds for a slander claim against Mary.

Now, let’s take a look at an example of libel.

Example: A man, Jim, is unhappy with his son’s teacher, Julia. He is a newspaper columnist and decides to write an article about his son’s school and Julia. In the article, he claims Julia doesn’t have a degree and can’t manage her classroom. The school fires Julia from her job. Julia may have a libel claim against Jim.

Finally, here’s an example of defamation per se.

Example: A woman, Beth, is angry with her boyfriend, Tony. Beth believes Tony is cheating on her. She tells Tony’s boss that Tony is a cheat and has an STD. Tony’s boss decides to fire him from his job. Tony may have a claim against Beth for defamation per se.

What do you have to prove in a defamation lawsuit?

You’ll need to prove five elements in a defamation lawsuit. They include:

  • The defendant made a false statement about someone else.
  • The defendant shared the information with a third party.
  • The defendant was either negligent or malicious in their intent.
  • The defendant made the statement in an unprivileged context.
  • The person suffered damage to their reputation as a result of the statement.

The court will dismiss the case if the plaintiff can’t prove all the elements of the defamation claim.

What are the defenses against defamation?

A defendant can use several defenses against a defamation claim.

Truth is always a defense against defamation. If the statement about the plaintiff was substantially accurate, the first element of a defamation claim isn’t met.If the statement was an opinion about someone else, there usually is no grounds for defamation.

Statements concerning matters of public interest are protected from defamation lawsuits. For instance, statements about political parties or candidates are considered privileged and can usually not be the subject of a defamation lawsuit.

If the plaintiff consents to the publication of a statement, they will not have grounds for a lawsuit.

All defamation lawsuits are subject to their state’s statute of limitations laws. If the statute of limitations expires, the court will dismiss the case.

How do defamation cases involving a public figure work?

Celebrities, politicians, and other individuals that are regularly in the public eye are often the subject of rumors and negative statements circulating in the press. While public figures may not appreciate the negative remarks made about them, they face additional requirements to win a defamation lawsuit.

Public figures must prove all the elements of a defamation case, but they must also establish that a plaintiff made a comment with actual malice.

For example, consider a famous female singer who is the subject of a rumor in the press accusing her of being a racist. The statement originates from another celebrity, who claims they saw the singer using profanity and discriminatory language with her staff.

In reality, the scene the celebrity claims they saw never happened. The celebrity made the statement to damage the singer’s reputation in hopes that she would lose her contract with her record label.

The singer might have a defamation claim since the other celebrity made the statements with intentional malice.

Key takeaways

Hopefully this article helped you understand more about what a defamation lawsuit entails. Here are some key takeaways to remember:

  • Defamation is when someone makes a false statement about someone else that causes harm to them or their reputation.
  • Libel is making an untrue statement about someone else in a publishable form, usually resulting in harm.
  • Slander is making an untrue statement about someone orally, resulting in harm.
  • Defamation per se involves accusations so severe that the court automatically assumes the victim suffered harm.
  • In order to prove someone has committed defamation, there must be evidence that they made a false statement about someone else, shared the information with a third party, were negligent or had malicious intentions, and made the statement in an unprivileged context. It must also be proved that the opposing party suffered damage to their reputation as a result of the statements.

Be careful what you say about others. It can come back to bite you. If you’re being taken to court for defamation, you have options for defenses that can help you win your case.

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