It happens to everyone at one point in their lives. A stranger, coworker, or ex-best friend says something untruthful about you. Many times, the only things that come from the false statements are a lot of hurt feelings and interpersonal drama. However, sometimes those false statements can have more serious consequences such as a job loss or damage to a company's reputation. In these cases, it is possible to sue for compensation for any damages or losses the lies cause. Here's more information about litigating this type of case.
The Elements of Defamation
The legal term for when someone makes false statements about another person is defamation. There are two different claim types under this umbrella term: slander and libel. Slander is used for false statements made verbally, while libel is false statements made in writing.
To prevail in court, you must prove four elements:
- The person made a statement that was false and defamatory
- The statement was made to an unprivileged third party
- The person was negligent in publishing (via speech or writing) the defamatory statement
- You suffered compensable damages related to the publishing of the defamatory statement
Proving Your Case in Court
Defamation can be challenging to win in court for a few reasons. You have to prove the defamation was presented as a statement of fact and not a personal opinion. Personal opinions are protected by the First Amendment, so you cannot sue someone for saying he or she thinks you are a rude person. On the other hand, if that same person told another person you murdered someone and you can prove that statement to be demonstrably untrue, then you can recover compensation from the person for any damage the individual's words caused.
Another challenge is proving the statement isn't protected by privilege. There are certain times when a person can say something defamatory and be shielded from lawsuits. These include:
- The individual defamed was a public figure or celebrity
- The statement was made between spouses
- The statement was made during court proceedings, by government officials, or during legislative debates
- The statements were part of political broadcasts or speeches.
Lastly, it's not enough to prove the statement was false; it also has to harm your reputation in some way. For instance, someone says you don't wash your socks. Even if the statement is not true, the court may not consider it to be defamatory since the impact to your reputation is likely negligible.
However, a woman won a $500,000 judgment against the pastor of her church after he told the congregation she had committed adultery. The alleged purpose of the statement was to tarnish the woman's reputation to gain approval from the congregation for the pastor's daughter to be in a relationship with the woman's ex-husband. For religious people, having people believe they are an adulterer can have a significantly negative impact on their reputations in the community.
The third area where you may have some trouble is proving the defamatory statement lead to compensable damages. For instance, if a coworker lied to your boss and said you stole money and you were fired as a result, then you could sue the person for loss of income. On the other hand, if the defamatory statement didn't result in any losses for you, then it will be difficult to get the court to award you any damages, even though your reputation may have suffered because of the slander or libel.
In addition to financial damages, though, you can sue for mental of physical anguish. You have to connect the defamatory statements to your physical or mental condition. For instance, if you become severely depressed, you would need to show the defamatory statements caused your depression.
While proving defamation may be challenging, it can be done. Consult with a personal injury lawyer for assistance with putting together a viable case that helps you prevail in court.