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What is a Defamation Lawsuit? Everything You Need to Know

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When you hear the words “personal injury,” you might think of physical injuries, such as those that happen in car accidents or falls. But personal injury also includes a different kind of injury: defamation.

I gained years of experience as I represented clients who have been the victims of defamation and those who have been accused of libel claims. In this article, I will tell you everything you need to know about a defamation case and libel law.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • There are two types of defamation: written defamation (libel) and spoken defamation (slander)
  • The United States Supreme Court ruled that some remarks that may be harmful or untrue are still protected under the First Amendment
  • Qualified privilege is a legal term that means you can say something bad about someone, but it’s not considered to be defamation because of special circumstances

What Is Defamation?

A lawyer holding a thick bookDefamation is the legal term for a false and unprivileged statement of fact that harms another person’s reputation [1]

Defamation is not a crime, but it is a grave wrong. If someone defames you, you can sue them for punitive damages by filing civil lawsuits and asking for money to compensate you for the harm done to you.

Defamation law tries to protect people’s lives while also allowing them to speak freely. People should not be able to ruin others’ lives by telling lies about them, but they should also be able to express their opinions without fear of being sued. 

The United States Supreme Court ruled that certain defamatory remarks are protected under the First Amendment. A newspaper story, for example, said unflattering things about a prominent public figure and public officials does not qualify for a defamation claim.

The Supreme court held that if the statements about public figures are not backed up by solid facts and are clearly false, they will be protected from any libel claim.

2 Types of Defamation

An attorney explaining a clipboard something while holding a pen

There are two types of defamation: libel and slander. Libel is written defamation, while slander is oral (spoken) defamation. The type of defamation will affect what kind of damages you can recover in defamation claims.

1. Libel Claims

Libel is a written or printed defamatory false statement. You can file libel lawsuits if someone says something that is untrue about you and is published in a book, magazine, newspaper, on the internet, or on Facebook. If the statement is made on TV or radio, that is also libel.

2. Slander Claims

Slander is an oral (spoken) defamatory statement. A defamatory statement can include someone spreading rumors about you or making false statements to others.

“Because written statements last longer than spoken statements, most courts, juries, and insurance companies consider libel more harmful than slander.”
Emily Doskow, Attorney

4 Key Characteristics of a Defamation Lawsuit

A lawyer's gavel inside a book

Defamation laws differ by state, but there are some generally accepted laws.

To prove defamation in a defamation claim, you must usually establish defamation by showing that someone has made defamatory statements that are all of the following:

  • Published
  • False
  • Injurious
  • Unprivileged

Let’s go through each of these elements that must exist in any defamation suit.

1. Published Defamation

“Published” means that a third person heard or saw the statement, which is to say, someone other than the speaker of the statement’s subject. It does not imply that the statement was published in a book.

2. False Defamation

False defamation happens when someone makes a false statement of fact or reckless disregard for something considered defamatory. 

Even an allegedly defamatory statement that contains horribly cruel or nasty remarks isn’t defamatory if the shoe fits. Because most opinions can’t be shown to be objectively false, they are not defamation.

3. Injurious Defamation

The statement must be harmful and carries actual malice. Because defamation law aims to protect people’s reputations, plaintiffs in such cases must show how their reputation suffered from actual damages based on untrue information. 

That is why the attorney must prove actual malice and that the statement caused harm.

For example, they lost work, were shunned by neighbors, friends, or family members, or were harassed by the press. A person who has a bad reputation, to begin with, will have a harder time showing that a false statement harmed them.

4. Unprivileged Defamation

Finally, a defamatory statement must be “unprivileged.” Even if the statement can be verified false in certain circumstances, you may not sue someone for defamation. 

In situations where “privileged” speech is concerned, legislators have determined that free speech is so essential that speakers should not be worried about being sued for defamation.

Qualified privilege is a legal term that allows someone to say something that would typically be considered defamatory, but because of special circumstances, the statement is not considered to be defamatory. However, it could be if it was proven that the speaker’s statement was made with actual malice.

Even though lawmakers enjoy this immunity from liability, they are not responsible for remarks made in the legislative chamber or government publications, even if those statements would otherwise be defamatory.

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FAQs

How much does a defamation lawsuit cost?

The cost of a defamation lawsuit will depend on the severity of the defamation, the jurisdiction in which the case is filed, and the number of damages sought. In general, however, a defamation lawsuit can be quite expensive.

How long does the duration of a defamation lawsuit take?

The duration of the defamation lawsuit will depend on the severity of the defamation, the jurisdiction in which the case is filed, and the number of damages sought.

What are the chances of winning a defamation lawsuit?

The chances of winning a defamation lawsuit will depend on the severity of the defamation and the jurisdiction.

How is defamation considered a personal injury?

Defamation is considered personal injury because it can cause harm to a person’s reputation, which can lead to emotional distress, loss of work, and other damages.

What is a privileged statement?

A privileged statement is made in a situation where the speaker is immune from liability, even if the statement is false and injurious.

The Bottom Line

Defamation is a complex legal issue, and if you think you may have been the victim, you should speak to a personal injury attorney to discuss your options regarding a defamation case. 

Contact our law firm Schmidt & Clark for your free consultation with one of our experienced defamation lawyers. Our lawyers have the ability to help navigate you through the complexities of the legal system and fight to get you the compensation that you deserve.


References:

  1. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/defamation

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