It’s likely everyone has heard their fair share of rumors and gossip. But what happens when something is said or written about you that ends up having serious consequences on your life and career? It might be time to call a lawyer to file a defamation of character lawsuit against your boss or someone else.
To successfully sue for defamation of character, you (the plaintiff) need to prove real damages caused by statements or publications. If you’re filing a lawsuit against your boss (or another defendant) for defamation of character, you must prove that your former boss:
- Made false statements about you.
- Acted with malice knowing the statement was false or made it recklessly.
- Either told another person or published the statement.
- Made false statements that caused real harm to you.
By real harm, the statements have to be more than just petty comments and gossip. These statements would result in you losing your job, preventing you from finding a new one, or causing you serious emotional and physical harm.
Deciding whether or not someone’s comments are defaming or just petty can be tricky. This blog shows you the elements of defamation, what you need to do if you want to sue, and other terms you may come across such as slander.
Elements of Defamation
Defamation of character does not mean that the statements hurt your feelings or bruised your ego. For example, someone may have called you a name during a disagreement at work. Although the name-calling hurt and may not have been necessary, it’s not entirely defaming in a legal context.
In order for a comment to be defamatory, you must prove that the comment was:
- Intended to lower your reputation.
- Refers to you, specifically.
- Made by the defendant and told to at least one other person.
There are some comments that you may assume are defamatory. And although someone may express a negative or even false opinion about you, it’s defamatory unless it intentionally was made to harm both you and your reputation.
For example, someone at work says you’re “trampy” because you go on a lot of dates. Although the comment is harmful, unless it’s getting in the way of your job, it’s just a mean and false opinion. You can’t file a lawsuit, but you can file a complaint with your human resources department.
In that same example, let’s say you’re a teacher and the person who made the comment implies that you go on dates with your students. Because those allegations are quite serious on many levels, you would have full rights to sue for defamation of character.
If you’re still having trouble deciding whether or not a comment was defamatory, revisit the elements of defamation:
- The statement was spoken, written, pictured, or gestured.
- The statement was “published”, meaning at least one other person saw or heard it.
- The defamatory statement is entirely false, otherwise, it’s not defaming.
- The statement causes injuries to your reputation, causing serious consequences for yourself.
- The defamatory statement must be “unprivileged”, even if it’s false.
Lawmakers do recognize that citizens have the right to free speech. There are some instances where even though a statement is false and defamatory, the defendant has privileges that protect them.
Journalists are a good example of this. Let’s say a food critic goes to a restaurant and leaves a review saying the restaurant was unclean. Although that statement is defamatory and might be entirely untrue, the journalist has privileges that protect them from lawsuits against restaurant owners.
Other instances of absolute privilege, meaning you’re fully protected against lawsuits, include:
- Judicial proceedings
- High government officials
- Legislators during debates
- Political broadcasts or speeches
- Between spouses.
Defamation Per Se
This term is commonly used in sexual misconduct cases. Since alleged perpetrators are considered “innocent until proven guilty”, allegations are also “per se defamatory” if the allegations are proved to be false, malicious, and recklessly made.
Some states may also recognize other instances where statements are defamatory per se, which include saying or implying that a person:
- Committed crime.
- Engaged in sexual misconduct.
- Has a communicable disease.
- Lacks the skills or integrity to perform job duties.
Defamation vs Slander vs Libel
“Defamation of character” is a generalist term for any comment that could hurt your reputation. Defamation itself isn’t a crime, but you can still press civil charges against a person if the law allows it. Tort cases aren’t criminal, meaning that the person who made the defamatory comments won’t go to jail, but they will have to pay out damages.
Also Read: The Myth of Frivolous Lawsuits
There are two types of defamation: libel and slander. In libel cases, the defaming comments can be found on some kind of permanent record, such as an email, social media post, a written publication, a radio or TV broadcast, or a video. In slander cases, the defaming comments have no record, meaning that it was said out loud or made with some kind of gesture.
Elements of Slander
Slander is any defamatory statement made out loud or in gesture. To file a defamation of character lawsuit against someone for slanderous comments, you must prove that the comments were defamatory, made to at least one other person, and you suffered significant damage from them, or “special damages”.
Special damages include actual harm from loss of customers, being fired or refused jobs, or some other kind of financial loss.
Elements of Libel
Libel is any defamatory statement written or said on a permanent record. This can include emails, social media posts, written publications, radio or TV broadcasts, or videos. Plaintiffs need to prove two things in libel cases:
- The defendant published defamatory statements about the plaintiff.
- Other people saw these statements, thus harming the plaintiff.
Regardless of whether or not the publications were later deleted, the court generally assumes that once a statement reaches the public, it can remain there and will remain for a long time.
Burden of Proof
For the plaintiff to prove that their reputation has been tarnished, they are left with the burden of proof. The plaintiff needs to provide the court documents and witness testimony that proves the defamatory statement:
- Is false and made maliciously or with no regard for the truth.
- Harmed the plaintiff’s reputation.
- Caused financial harm to the plaintiff.
- Caused the plaintiff emotional pain and suffering.
Proving this may involve witness testimony, bank statements, pay stubs, and tax returns.
Alternatively, the defendant’s could argue against the plaintiff by saying that the statement:
- Is true, therefore is not defamatory.
- Is an opinion within its context.
- Did not cause harm to the plaintiff.
- Is something the plaintiff once agreed to or with.
Public figures normally have a higher burden of proof when it comes to defamation of character lawsuits. As a public figure, you need to prove that the statements made by the defendant were knowingly false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true.
Generally, since public figures hold such large platforms, they’re constantly under the public’s criticism. This is especially true online when public figures face scandals and social media trolls. However, if the public can find that the statement was made with malicious intent, they might have a case.
Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer
Hiring a personal injury lawyer to help with your defamation of character lawsuit is vital to your case. A personal injury lawyer will help you collect sufficient evidence and help you calculate:
- Actual damages
- Assumed damages
- Punitive damages
Most defamation of character lawsuits averages around $15,000, which is normally distributed in monthly payments. Depending on your specific case, you could see that number vary.
Personal injury lawyers work off of contingencies, meaning they’re only paid if you receive a settlement. To book a consultation with a personal injury lawyer near you today, call MyCaseHelper today.
Also Read: 12 Questions To Ask a Personal Injury Lawyer