What is Defamation of Character?


Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Defamation of character occurs when a false statement presented as fact damages another person’s reputation or causes personal injury. You may not suffer direct bodily injury due to what someone said, but the resulting non-economic damages may be devastating.

A damaged reputation may bar you from necessary employment. The emotional distress from seeing your friends and family believe another person’s lies is traumatizing. Acts of defamation may turn your healthy workplace into a crushingly hostile work environment.

If you’ve suffered a serious case of defamation, read on. This article goes over what defamation of character is, the types of defamation you may encounter, and the damages you may sue for.

If you need further assistance specific to your case, connect with a personal injury attorney as soon as you can. You have to prove multiple things for a successful defamation lawsuit, but the uncertainty goes away when you have a legal professional on your side.

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Defining Defamation of Character

Defamation of character occurs when a person says something untrue and damaging about another individual to someone else. If you say it directly to the person in question, then that’s inflammatory and cruel, but not defamation of character.

If, however, you say something false to another person that causes reputational harm, a defamation of character claim is possible. The statement has to be presented as fact to be considered defamation. Coupling that with malicious intent and a civil lawsuit could definitely be on the table.

Though every state determines its own definition of defamation of character, in general these three elements must be present:

  1. Someone makes a negligent or malicious demonstrably false statement to a third party
  2. They deliver that statement as if it’s fact
  3. The statement causes reputational harm

Opinion vs. Defamation

The difference between delivering a statement as opinion versus fact is one of the key determiners for defamation.

Therefore, it’s important to note that opinion is generally not going to qualify as defamation. But there are exceptions, especially if that opinion goads someone to commit a crime or causes serious harm, like in Counterman v. Colorado.

So how can you determine the difference?  Let’s look at an example. It’s an opinion and not defamation if someone says about a colleague, “I think John Doe is a grifter.” But it might be defamation if that colleague falsely accuses, “I think John Doe is stealing from the company vending machine daily.”

And if the news were reporting, it’d be, “Allegedly, an employee thinks John Doe is stealing from the vending machine.” You’ll notice the media often puts words like “allegedly” and “purportedly” in the mix. One reason for that word choice is to avoid any defamation citations while covering potential crimes.

Small word choices can be the difference between presenting a statement as opinion versus a fact.

Differences Between Slander and Libel

There are basically two ways that defamation of character can surface: oral and written.

If someone orally delivers the false statement, that type of defamation is slander. It is generally unpublished defamation and harder to prove because there will need to be witnesses.

If the disparaging comment comes in a written or otherwise permanently retrievable format like TV or radio, then it is libel. This includes digital assets like podcasts, blogs, and videos. Because there’s a “record” of defamation out there for people to see, libel is generally easier to prove than slander.

This distinction is important because it determines what type of claim a victim will attach to their defamation of character case. Both slander and libel fall under the umbrella of defamation.

How to Prove a Defamation of Character Claim

Whether slander or libel, a defendant will have to prove certain things for a defamation of character claim to stick.

First and foremost, the claimant must show that the defamatory statement is actually false. That’s because truth — even if it’s extremely unflattering — is an absolute defense in a defamation of character case.

After that, then a claimant must prove the following for their claim to be successful:

  1. A third party heard or read the false statement.
    • In other words, someone else besides the defendant was on the receiving end of this lie.
  2. The person responsible for the defamatory statement was negligent or acting with malice by not questioning its veracity.
    • If you’re a private figure, you must simply show the defendant was negligent in verifying the statement’s truth before sharing. If you’re a public figure, the bar is higher. Public figures must show the defendant was reckless or malicious in publishing a knowingly false statement.
  3. You, your reputation, and your character undergo harm as a result of the defamation.
    • If the statement was false, published to others, and made knowingly, a court will likely assume you incur damage. Otherwise, you will have to show evidence of the harm you experienced (“defamation per quod”).
  4. It was not a privileged statement.
    • In some cases, a statement may have protection from defamation claims, such as a comment made in court under oath.

If all of the above pieces are in place, you may wish to file a civil lawsuit for defamation of character. If successful, it’s possible to recover compensation to help mitigate the damage from the defamation. However, keep in mind, you will definitely need a lawyer since this type of case can be very difficult to try in a court of law.

Defamation Per Se

Certain statements will automatically fall into the category of defamation if they’re false, or defamation per se. In these cases, the subject of defamation will not need to show any special damages. Defamation per se includes statements that are interpreted as damaging by themselves, creating no double-meanings.

Malice is presumed in defamation per se cases because the words themselves incite contempt towards another individual.

Examples of defamation per se might include:

  • Revealing a false contagious disease diagnosis
  • Accusing someone of untrue sexual transgressions or adultery
  • Claiming unjustly that an individual is guilty of a crime
  • Stating incorrectly that the person engages in activities incompatible with their profession or business

Defamation Per Quod

A defamation per quod case is different from defamation per se because the listener requires context for the statement to be proven defamatory. Any statement where the words themselves are not harmful, but with extrinsic evidence become defamatory is defamation per quod.

Damages in Defamation of Character Lawsuits

Defamation of character lawsuits technically fall under the category of personal injury. This oftentimes confuses people since they assume a personal injury means physical harm. But the hurt from an attack on your character may sometimes feel even worse than a physiological wound.

As a result, there are options to sue for damages including those that are quantifiable and those that are presumed. Quantifiable damages are generally economic and calculable. Presumed damages are those that do not require proof of injury but are expected to result from the defamation.

The damages a person can sue for with a defamation of character case include losses like:

  • Financial diminishment from a loss of customers or missed opportunities
  • Money spent to repair your reputation
  • Medical payments for things like therapy or stress resulting from the defamation
  • Non-economic losses like pain and suffering, loss of reputation, or lower quality of life

To receive compensation, the burden of proof generally falls to the plaintiff to demonstrate damages resulting from the defamation. This is a challenging part of the process and another reason it’s vital to hire an attorney for these cases.

Punitive Damages

Defamation of character cases are generally not criminal, but rather civil. But in claims where the damage is particularly egregious, a person may pursue punitive damages to punish the defendant.

These come into play to deter the person making the statements from ever doing or saying something like that again. This may also create a precedent for preventing future cases like yours from happening to others in the future.

How to Defend Against a Defamation of Character Case

What happens if you’re the defendant in a defamation of character case? Well, if you want the case to disappear, all you must do is show the purportedly defamatory statement is true. There is no case if you can prove your statement’s truthfulness.

If the claimant suing you is a public figure, try showing you were only negligent in verifying the statement false. That may work as a defense for case dismissal if it seems like you were simply sloppy with fact checking. As a reminder, that’s because for public figures, they must show the defamatory statement came with malicious intent.

The other option is if you can demonstrate you were operating under privileged speech. If it’s a protected statement owing to your official duties of employment or another professional scenario, it may exempt you.

Examples of Defamation of Character Cases

There seems to have been a recent run of big-name defamation of character cases in the news recently. Perhaps it’s another sign of the times when polite conduct seems to be on a time out. The internet is also responsible for unleashing a wave of inflammatory comments. Whatever the reason, many of these cases tend to be high profile.

One recent case was Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News, where Dominion stated that Fox damaged the company’s reputation by claiming its equipment switched votes from former President Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden. There was a $787 million settlement agreement by Fox to avoid going to trial over their defamatory statements.

The media circus surrounding Johnny Depp’s defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard is another prime example. That trial ended with Depp winning a $10.35 million verdict.

And as of August 2022, Alex Jones owes $45.2 million in punitive damages and $4.1 million in compensatory damages due to the comments he made about the Sandy Hook shootings.

While these examples are very expensive defamation of character case outcomes, that’s not always the result. Multi-million-dollar verdicts are not the norm. You might lose your case and get nothing, or sue and end up with a settlement that covers your damages. Just know these cases are quite variable and not easy to prove.

Connect With a Personal Injury Attorney to Protect Your Character

Whether you’re a celebrity or not, if someone levies a defamatory statement towards you it can leave a real mark. You may have heard the common myths surrounding personal injury claims, but don’t let them dissuade you from finding answers to your legal questions.

Just know that defamation is a very complicated area of law. That’s because of the close intersection between free speech, and the right to not have someone spreading lies about you.

The best thing to do is to meet with a skilled personal injury attorney to see if you may have a solid defamation case. Then together you can work to rebuild your reputation. Because an effective lawyer has no price, and you deserve to project your name.

Kimberly Dawn Neumann
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Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes to Cosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit: www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann