Defamation: Basic Legal Concepts

What Damages Can I Recover From A Defamation Of Character Suit?

If you have been defamed you may seek both actual damages, to recover the harm that you have suffered, and punitive damages to punish the person who made the remark (and serve as an example to deter others).

If the defamation improperly accused you of a crime or reflected on your profession, the court or jury can assess the damages. For other types of defamation you must prove some actual damage to be able to recover.

What Defenses May Be Available To Someone Who Is Sued For Defamation?

There are ordinarily 6 possible defenses available to a defendant who is sued for libel (published defamatory communication.)

1. Truth. This is a complete defense, but may be difficult to prove.

2. Fair comment on a matter of public interest. This defense applies to “opinion” only, as compared to a statement of fact. The defendant usually needs to prove that the opinion is honestly held and the comments were not motivated by actual “malice.” (Malice means knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth of falsity of the defamatory statement.)

3. Privilege. The privilege may be absolute or qualified. Privilege generally exists where the speaker or writer has a duty to communicate to a specific person or persons on a given occasion. In some cases the privilege is qualified and may be lost if the publication is unnecessarily wide or made with malice.

4. Consent. This is rarely available, as plaintiffs will not ordinarily agree to the publication of statements that they find offensive.

5. Innocent dissemination. In some cases a party who has no knowledge of the content of a defamatory statement may use this defense. For example, a mailman who delivers a sealed envelope containing a defamatory statement, is not legally liable for any damages that come about from the statement.

6. Plaintiff’s poor reputation. Defendant can mitigate (lessen) damages for a defamatory statement by proving that the plaintiff did not have a good reputation to begin with. Defendant ordinarily can prove plaintiff’s poor reputation by calling witnesses with knowledge of the plaintiff’s prior reputation relating to the defamatory content.

What Are Slander And Libel?

Slander and libel are two forms of defamation. Slander is a spoken defamation and libel is the written form. However, radio and television broadcasts that are defamatory are considered to be libel, rather than slander, even though the defamation is spoken rather than written.

What Is Libel Per Se?

When libel is clear on its face, without the need for any explanatory matter, it is called libel per se. The following are often found to be libelous per se:

A statement that falsely:

This article provides general information about defamation of character in the spoken form of slander and the written form of libel. It gives general examples of what could be considered defamatory and what is normally not considered defamatory. It also outlines possible defenses against a slander or libel claim. However, it is not a substitute for qualified legal advice. Consult with a personal injury attorney that specializes in defamation actions if you feel you’ve been defamed, if you’re facing any form of defamation of character action or have legal questions about this practice area.

  1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;
  2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;
  3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects that the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;
  4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity.
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