Using a Defamation Lawsuit to Recover Reputational Losses

Sarah Edwards

Contributor

Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.

Editor

Read in 4 mins

The actions of another person or business can cause many types of losses. A dangerous drug might harm a patient, while a traumatic event like a car accident can cause losses like property damage, bodily injury and pain and suffering. In such cases, the law allows victims to seek compensation for the harm they’ve experienced.

False statements of fact can also injure you. But instead of affecting your body or property, these statements damage your reputation. Reputational damage may, in turn, affect your finances, mental health and quality of life.

The law recognizes that these losses are real and allows you to pursue compensation for them through a defamation lawsuit. Here’s what you need to know.

Features of a Defamation of Character Lawsuit

Defamation law has existed for centuries. Some legal scholars theorize that suing for defamation of character replaced dueling over insults, scandals and falsehoods. From its origins, defamation claims have given the victim a path to:

  • Hold the responsible party liable in a public forum
  • Restore their reputation

At the same time, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. This means you are allowed to express any opinion, no matter how unpopular or untruthful it may be.

As a result, anyone pursuing a compensation claim must meet certain elements to assure the court it is only imposing liability for unprotected falsehoods and not protected speech. U.S. courts are even more protective of free speech when it involves public figures.

These victims cannot sue for negligently stated falsehoods. Instead, they must prove the speaker acted knowingly or recklessly.

Elements of Defamation

Before learning how to win a defamation case, you must first understand the distinction between statements of fact and opinion. Facts are verifiable through objective observation or testing. For example, the following represent factual statements:

  • He cheated on his wife
  • They declared bankruptcy
  • The restaurant’s food gave someone food poisoning

A judge or jury can compare these statements to objective facts and determine whether they ring true or false.

By contrast, statements of opinion represent subjective viewpoints. You might disagree with them, but you cannot prove them true or false. Some opinions might include:

  • He is a bad husband
  • She looks sick
  • They never seem to have much money
  • The restaurant’s food is bad

A court cannot test these statements against reality to verify their truth. Thus, they serve only as subjective opinions.

To prove defamation, you must have evidence of the following elements:

  • There is a demonstrably false statement of fact
  • The false statement was uttered or published to a third party
  • The speaker or writer knew or should have known it was false
  • The victim suffered reputational damage

These elements only apply to private individuals. Public figures must prove different elements because the First Amendment protects the public’s right to criticize them.

Public Figure Defamation

Public figures can only recover damages for defamatory statements made with actual malice. You can prove the actual malice of the speaker or writer in two ways:

  • They knew of the falsity of the statement
  • They uttered or published the statement with reckless disregard for the truth

Thus, a newspaper might publish a story about a famous talk show doctor, saying they injured a patient and had to pay a multi-million dollar medical malpractice payout. Even if the story is provably false, the doctor can only recover compensation by showing the newspaper knew it was false or failed to conduct basic fact-checking that would have disproved the story.

Damages in a Defamation Lawsuit

Whether the victim is a public or private figure, they must prove the falsehood damaged their reputation. A harmless falsehood, such as “he is a vegetarian,” would probably not support a defamation claim for most victims. However, if the victim was the spokesperson for a hamburger chain, the statement might damage their reputation.

Similarly, if someone already has a bad reputation, a false statement might not damage their character. For instance, suppose that a serial killer’s childhood friend falsely stated that the killer had stolen money from the church as a child. The killer’s reputation might already be so bad that the false statement would probably have little effect on it.

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Differences Between a Slander Lawsuit and a Libel Lawsuit

English common law distinguished between libel and slander. Libel referred to a published falsehood, while slanderous statements were made orally.

Today, defamation covers both types of claims. As a result, suing for slander and libel requires proof of the same elements and results in compensation for the same types of losses when you win.

Contact ConsumerShield to Learn More About Defamation

You have options after someone publishes falsehoods about you. ConsumerShield can educate you about your legal rights and connect you with a defamation attorney to represent you against the person or business that damaged your reputation. Contact us for a free case evaluation to learn more today.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Yes, private figures can sue for defamation of character involving a false statement of fact that:

    • Damaged the victim’s reputation
    • Was uttered or published to at least one other person
    • Involved a speaker or writer acting negligently about the truth

    Public figures, on the other hand, must meet a higher standard due to the First Amendment.

  • A defamation lawsuit is a legal process designed to remedy a false statement of fact. Specifically, a plaintiff can pursue compensation for financial losses, mental anguish and reputational damage. They can also seek compensation for the cost of publishing true statements that correct the false ones.

  • After winning a defamation case, you can seek compensation for losses such as:

    • Lost economic opportunities
    • Out-of-pocket costs of publishing corrective statements
    • Emotional distress
    • Mental suffering
    • Loss of reputation

    You use financial records to prove economic losses. The remaining losses often depend on the egregiousness of the statement.

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