What is Considered Defamation?
Defamation is a false statement about a person, portrayed as a fact, that is intended to harm the person’s reputation. All the elements of defamation must be present, meaning that mere gossip may not always be considered defamation. Because defamation is intended to hurt the person’s reputation it must be heard or read by third parties. Simply yelling a false statement about a person, at that person, during an argument is not defamation, regardless of how harmful the statement may be.
What is an Example of Defamation?
While the definition of defamation may appear complex, it is fairly easy to recognize in practice. In fact, when you are standing in line at the grocery store checkout, you are surrounded by potential defamation claims. Celebrity gossip magazines are frequently the target of successful defamation lawsuits. In 2011, Katie Holms sued a magazine after it published a story that she was addicted to drugs. Katie prevailed and the magazine paid a hefty fine for its publication. Recently, Rebel Wilson won a record setting multimillion-dollar settlement in Australia after several magazines published stories that she lied about her life story to become famous.
While celebrity gossip is a blatant example of defamation, you do not have to be a celebrity to be the target of defamation. Defamation can be as simple as a co-worker standing around the water cooler saying, “our boss is stealing from the company.” All elements of defamation are present in this statement – it is said to parties who are not the boss, will hurt the reputation of the boss by implying illegal activity, and is stated in a factual manner. Another important factor must be present for this statement to reach the full level of defamation: it must be false. If the boss is in fact stealing from the company, then the co-worker cannot be liable for the statement even if she was not sure if it was true or false. However, if the statement is false and the co-worker had no reason to believe her boss was stealing then she could be on the hook for damages to her boss.
What Are Libel and Slander?
While defamation, libel, and slander are often used to describe the same type of statement, such as “our boss is stealing money from the company,” they all in fact have different definitions. Defamation has already been defined as a false statement, portrayed as fact intended to harm a person’s reputation. Libel and slander are more specific types of defamation. Slander is a defamatory statement that is spoken out loud, such as the employee water cooler example. Libel, on the other hand, is defamatory remarks that are made in writing. For example, in the lawsuits of Katie Holms and Rebel Wilson, the women likely sued for libel because the magazines published the false statements in writing.
What is Needed to Prove Defamation?
When a plaintiff believes that he has been the victim of defamation, he will need to prove four elements in order to succeed in a lawsuit: (1) the defendant published a false statement, (2) the statement was about the plaintiff, (3) the defendant had knowledge that the statement was false, and (4) the statement caused injury to the plaintiff. The last element may be difficult to prove. For example, if the statement did not cause monetary loss such as loss of business or did not cause other harm such as losing your job then you may have a difficult time bringing a claim. Additionally, any claim for defamation must be brought within two years from when the defamatory statement occurred.
Private vs. Public Figures in Defamation Lawsuit
While all plaintiffs need to prove the same elements in a defamation lawsuit, public figures have an increased burden to meet. Public figures include celebrities, politicians, and any other individual who lives in the public eye. These public figures must prove that the defamatory makes were published with malicious knowledge of their falsity. For example, if Katie Holms had brought her defamation lawsuit in Florida, she would have needed to prove that the magazine knew the drug allegations were false yet still published the story with the intent to harm her reputation. On the other hand, private figures (your everyday “normal” people) have a lower standard of proof. Private people must prove that the defamatory remarks were made with ordinary negligence by using the “reasonably prudent person” standard.
Defamation Per Se
In certain cases, a plaintiff does not need to prove the four elements in order to have a successful defamation claim. These instances, called defamation per se, are so egregious that the court will assume the defamatory remarks have harmed the plaintiff. The four main categories of defamation per se in Florida are allegations that: (1) an individual was involved in criminal conduct, (2) has an infectious disease (particularly, a sexually transmitted disease), (3) a woman was involved in sexual misconduct, and (4) an individual is ill-suited to engage in business.
What is the Punishment for Defamation?
If an individual is found guilty of defamation he can be on the hook for massive monetary damages. In fact, many celebrity defamation cases have settled prior to trial in order for the magazine to avoid greater damages from the court. The first type of damages commonly awarded in defamation cases are actual damages. These are the monetary damages that the plaintiff incurred as a result of the defamatory statements. For example, if the statements caused the plaintiff to lose his job then the defendant can be liable for lost wages in the form of actual damages. Additionally, the court can award a more extreme amount of damages in the form of punitive damages if the defamatory remark was so shockingly offensive and harmful. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and deter him from ever committing defamation again.
In addition to civil remedies for defamation, Florida is one of few remaining states that has a criminal punishment if a person is found guilty of defamation. Any person who provides defamatory information to a publication can be found guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor. Additionally, the owner or editor of the newspaper or magazine of publication can also be found guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor if they knew the information was defamatory.