Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech. However, no one has the right to ruin a person or business’ reputation by making false statements, whether carelessly or maliciously.
Did someone make verbal defamatory statements against you or your business? Did these statements result in damages? If so, you could sue the speaker for defamation.
What is Defamation?
“Defamation of character” is an umbrella term for statements that damage someone’s reputation. It is not a crime in most states but is considered a civil wrong (“tort”).
Defamation law aims to balance competing interests. People should not be able to ruin others’ lives by spreading lies, but people should also be able to speak freely without constant fear of legal consequences for every comment, disagreement, or mistake.
Nevertheless, defamation is punishable in civil court. If someone makes false statements against you and damages your career, personal life, and public reputation, you have the legal right to file a slander lawsuit.
What is Slander?
Defamatory statements fall into two main categories: libel and slander. Libel is written defamation, while slander is oral or spoken defamation. Most courts, juries, and insurers consider libel more harmful than slander because written statements last longer, while oral statements fade out of memory over time.
Still, slander can be just as harmful as libel. To have grounds for a slander lawsuit, a third party must have been present or overheard the false statement from the speaker.
What is Slander Per Se?
A plaintiff (the person bringing the claim or lawsuit) typically has to prove their damages. However, in the case of “slander per se,” the court, jury, or insurer considers the defamatory messages inherently damaging to a plaintiff’s reputation. Hence, a plaintiff does not need to prove their damages in the case of slander per se.
The following statements can constitute slander per se:
- False and detrimental statements against a person’s profession or business
- False claims of a person’s criminal activity
- False accusations of a person’s sexual misconduct and unchastity
- False claims that a person suffers from a loathsome disease, usually referring to sexually transmitted diseases
What is a False Statement?
A false statement is an incorrect or untrue statement that the speaker expresses with the intent to deceive or mislead others. In defamation lawsuits, false statements are messages that intend to tarnish another person’s reputation.
What is Protected Opinion?
Everyone has the right to their opinion, and the First Amendment generally protects statements of opinion.
For instance, saying, “It seems that James from Accounting is cheating on his wife,” may be a protected opinion. On the other hand, saying “James from Accounting is cheating on his wife” is expressed as factual and may be defamatory if proven false.
However, it is not enough to start harmful statements with “I think” or “In my opinion” for them not to be considered defamatory.
According to the US Supreme Court, an opinion merits protection from the First Amendment if:
- It is a matter of public concern.
- It is expressed in a way that makes it difficult to prove whether it is true or not.
- It cannot be reasonably interpreted as a factual statement about an individual.
Matters of Public Interest
When you make statements about a matter of public interest, the court may not consider your words defamatory.
For instance, if you tell people that you think a local politician committed a crime when the allegations are all over the news, it will probably be considered a protected opinion. Furthermore, it is a matter of public concern and falls under the protection of free speech.
Defamatory Statements Against Public Figures
The First Amendment protects certain defamatory statements regarding public figures, including celebrities and politicians. The Supreme Court stated that people could make mistakes in discussions about public figures.
Hence, freedom of speech limits public figures’ ability to sue for defamation. Apart from the burden of proof private individuals have, a public figure must prove that a defendant made a defamatory statement with actual malice.
Actual malice means that the defendant made the slanderous statement knowing it was false or reckless disregard for whether it was true or false. A public figure cannot sue someone for a defamatory statement as long as it was made as an honest mistake.
This rule exists because the law encourages people to speak freely. Celebrities and politicians can expect more public scrutiny than the average person, and they would have to prove actual malice to sue for slander.
When someone makes a defamatory statement online, such as through a written post or video, it is considered libel, not slander. Still, the process of taking legal action against online libel is the same as suing for slander.
Currently, courts treat online defamation the same way as traditional forms. You can take legal action against someone who publishes defamatory material against you online, such as a disparaging blog post, Twitter update, or YouTube video.
However, you cannot file a defamation case against an Internet platform like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) protects these social media platforms and other computer services from libel suits, meaning the law does not recognize them as publishers of content posted by their users.
What is a Defamation Lawsuit?
Generally, defamation of character is only punishable as a civil wrong–it is not a criminal act (some states, however, have criminal punishments for defamation). A defamation lawsuit is a legal action against a person that makes libelous or slanderous statements against another and is conducted in civil court.
Any company, organization, or reasonable person can sue for slander or libel as long as they satisfy the requirements of a defamation case.
Defamation law varies from state to state. In general, however, a plaintiff must prove the following elements to be true:
- The defendant made a statement;
- The statement was published or spoken;
- The statement caused injury;
- The statement was false, and;
- The statement did not fall into a privileged category
The following are the definitions of these elements:
- Statement: First, you must prove that the defendant made a defamatory statement to a third party. The statement can be any communication that causes significant harm to your character and deters others from associating with you.
- Falsity: You cannot sue for slander if the statement made against you is true. Courts cannot punish people for speaking the truth. Therefore, you must prove that the speaker made a false statement against you.
- Publication: A third party must have seen, heard, or read the defamatory statement to be considered “published.” In a slander claim, the statement is “published” if the third party hears it from the speaker, unintentionally or otherwise.
- Injury: Unless the slanderous statement falls under slander per se, you must prove that you have suffered harm because of it. An “injury” can be any detrimental consequence of defamation, such as job loss, humiliation, shame, and ostracization.
- Unprivileged: Some defendants have absolute privileges or “immunities” based on their position or status. This absolute defense typically applies to specific circumstances, such as publications between spouses, judicial proceedings, and publications required by law. Privileged statements are made between clients and attorneys during witness testimonies or legislative proceedings.
You could have a case for slander if all these elements are present. Contact a defamation attorney to ensure you have proper grounds for a lawsuit before proceeding.
What to Do if Someone Makes a Defamatory Statement Against You
Filing a defamation claim involving slander is often tricky, primarily because there is usually no hard evidence of people making slanderous statements against others.
For instance, if your co-worker tells another co-worker that you have a criminal past, there is no way to prove that they said that other than the statement of the co-worker that heard it.
Hence, you need the cooperation of the third person to establish defamation. You must acquire the following details from them:
- What: The exact words of the statement
- When: The time the defendant communicated the statement
- How: The way the defendant communicated the statement, e.g., orally or through print
- Where: The specific place the defendant communicated the statement
- Whom: The third person to whom the defendant communicated the statement
Preserve video evidence and other things that can prove slander. Collect screenshots of messages or comments you have received from other people telling you about the slander.
Also, document the effects of the defamation on your personal and professional life. If you have lost your job due to slander, preserve the proof (e.g., an employee termination letter). Or if the slander has led to mental health problems, keep evidence of your medical records.
What Damages Can You Recover When You Sue For Slander?
Becoming the victim of untrue statements is stressful, at the very least. If these statements pertain to your character, career, or conduct, they could easily cause detrimental effects on your private and public life.
That said, you have the right to seek financial compensation for harm caused by the damaging statement made against you. By filing a civil lawsuit against the defendant, you could recover:
These damages compensate a victim for financial losses caused by slander. Courts can translate actual damages into specific dollar amounts and may include:
- Lost Wages, Income, and Benefits: A slanderous statement can ruin your professional reputation and cause you to lose your job. Even if you manage to keep your job, the spoken defamation can cause so much shame and stress that you miss work. Either way, you incur financial losses that you could recover through a defamation case.
- Decreased Earning Capacity: Some slander victims suffer demotion resulting from the false statements against them, leading to decreased earning capacity. Others also have difficulty finding new jobs due to their tarnished reputations, often being forced to settle for salaries lower than what they used to make. If either scenario happens, you could recover future income in a defamation case.
- Lost Business Revenue: In suing for slander, you could also recover compensation for the business deals, revenue, and prospects you’ve lost due to another person’s words. Some defamation claims even involve the loss of entire businesses, wherein victims typically sue for more significant compensation.
- Medical Bills: If you have suffered emotional distress, mental anguish, anxiety, depression, or physical symptoms like high blood pressure and panic attacks, you could recover the cost of treating these ailments through a defamation lawsuit. The court may award you compensation for past, ongoing, and future medical expenses for treating the health effects of the slander.
- Other Expenses: You may also receive compensation for attorney’s fees, dilution of intellectual property, costs to mitigate the damage to your reputation and other miscellaneous expenses.
No two slander cases are identical, meaning there is no average settlement value that would represent all types of defamation lawsuits.
An experienced defamation attorney can help you determine the amount you deserve by calculating your total losses starting from the date the defendant made offending statements against you. However, how much you can prove the extent of your financial injury may also affect the value of your settlement.
You could maximize your compensation by documenting your monetary losses in detail. For instance, you can collect bank statements, pay stubs, and tax returns to show lost income. If you run a business, you could enlist an accountant’s help to assess the slander’s financial impact on your revenue.
Financial losses are not the only significant damages a slander victim may incur. There is also non-monetary harm, including but not limited to:
- Mental anguish
- Emotional distress
- Public disgrace
- Pain and suffering
- Reduced family and social ties
- Loss of enjoyment in life
- Mental health problems (anxiety, depression, PTSD)
A judge, jury, or insurer determines the value of non-monetary damages in a defamation suit. An experienced lawyer can help you prove the extent of these damages to maximize your settlement.
Some plaintiffs are awarded punitive damages on top of compensatory damages. However, punitive damages aim to punish a guilty party’s egregious or malicious behavior rather than compensate the victim for the losses they have suffered.
Nevertheless, these damages add a significant financial recovery to the plaintiffs.
Factors That Can Affect a Slander Lawsuit Settlement
Aside from your financial losses and the dollar value of your general damages, other factors that may affect the value of your settlement include:
- The nature of the false and defamatory statement
- The trustworthiness of the evidence provided by each party
- The presence of actual malice
Recovering Compensation From Insurers
In slander lawsuits, the accused party often has to pay the plaintiff’s damages using personal assets. In some cases, however, defendants may have insurance policies that cover them for defamation cases.
An experienced defamation lawyer can help you determine how and where you can recover compensation. Your lawyer could conduct settlement negotiations on your behalf if the defendant has applicable insurance.
Possible Defenses in a Defamation Case
When you sue for slander, the defendant will likely use one or more defenses to fight the case. These may include:
- The Truth: A statement must be false to be considered defamatory. Otherwise, there is no case. The truth is the absolute defense against a defamation suit.
- Opinion: A statement expressed as factual constitutes defamation, meaning opinions may not be considered slanderous. You might not be able to sue for slander if the speaker simply gave their opinion, which they have the freedom to do. However, not all opinions are protected by freedom of speech; you need a skilled lawyer to establish slander if the speaker tried to present their statement as an “opinion.”
- Absolute Privileges: Some people have protection from defamation action in certain circumstances, e.g., when a witness is testifying at trial. Unfortunately, you may not be able to sue for slander in a case where the defendant has absolute privilege.
- Qualified Privileges: Statements may fall under “qualified privilege,” which recognizes that people have some right to make false statements in some cases. For instance, fair criticism of media and warnings of potential danger are subject to qualified statements. However, if the speaker expressed the statement with actual malice, they might no longer be entitled to qualified privilege.
- Retraction: A retraction is a formal and public withdrawal of an alleged defamatory statement. You can still sue for slander, but the retraction may lessen the losses caused by the statement and reduce the amount you may recover.
Punishments for Slander
A person found guilty of defamation of character could face fines or imprisonment. Fine amounts vary in different states, and it is uncommon for a defendant to go to jail. However, some states have criminal penalties for defamation of character, and a defendant can get arrested for libel or slander on top of facing a civil case.
States that allow criminal punishment for slander lawsuits include:
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- New Hampshire
Note: Not all state defamation laws apply to individuals. Some, such as Texas and Illinois, only allow criminal penalties for libel and slander claims against financial institutions. Furthermore, courts must find defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to file criminal punishments.
Is Filing a Slander Case Worth It?
Recovering money from a slander lawsuit can help ease the burden of the harm the defamation has caused. However, taking a case to court is not always the best choice for everybody.
Whether suing for slander is worth your time and effort will depend on your case’s circumstances. Consult an experienced attorney to understand the pros and cons of filing a lawsuit, including the risks you may encounter.
How a Defamation Attorney Can Help
Like personal injury cases, defamation lawsuits are often complex. You need the help of experienced defamation lawyers who can help you:
- Understand defamation laws and determine if you have a case
- Determine if the statements qualify as defamatory
- Establish the extent of your losses
- Gather evidence to prove defamation
- File a slander case against the defendant’s insurer or in civil court, whichever is necessary
- Serve as your legal representation in court
- Demand a public apology from the guilty party
False statements against a person’s reputation can be painful, humiliating, and–in worst cases–life-ruining. Fortunately, defamation law can help you hold the people responsible for damaging your honor, career, and personal life.
When you sue for slander, you could recover financial compensation for emotional distress, adverse employment consequences, mental health issues, and other economic and non-economic losses. However, filing a slander or libel claim is difficult without a legal professional.
To ensure the success of your case, hire experienced defamation lawyers who can help you seek justice for the lies against your character.