What Is Defamation of Character?

We often explain to clients that they can receive compensation for both economic and non-economic losses. These losses include things like medical bills, lost wages, and even the emotional pain and suffering associated with the experience. However, many people suffer harm where losses are less tangible. Defamation can affect a person’s livelihood, standing in the community, and personal life, but calculating those costs for a claim is complex.

What Is Defamation of Character?

Defamation involves the purposeful use of statements that endanger the good reputation of a person. In writing, defamation is libel, while spoken defamation is slander. A person who experiences either of these civil wrongs may, in theory, file a claim for damages that result. Defamation laws can be tricky, because they address two competing interests. On the one hand, the First Amendment protects the right to free speech. On the other, people should not have to worry about others ruining their lives by spreading lies. That’s why many states establish required elements of defamation cases.

The Elements of a Defamation Case

If a person believes he or she has been defamed, he or she must show that the statements, whether written or spoken, are:

  • False
  • Injurious
  • Published
  • Unprivileged

First, a defamation claim must involve a statement that’s untrue. A person cannot file a claim against someone else for spreading negative information that, while unflattering, is technically true.

Second, an injurious statement is one that causes harm to the person it’s about. A person cannot pursue a claim if negative statements did not lead to harmful consequences. An example of an injurious statement might be a lie that cost a coworker a promotion or better job opportunity.

A statement may be published in a variety of ways, but just through written word. In the context of a defamation suit, “published” simply means that someone heard or saw the negative statement – someone other than who it was about. A person can publish a statement by posting it on social media, saying it on television or in a public speech, or even by engaging in loud conversation.

Last, the information subject to a defamation claim must be unprivileged. Certain types of information, such as those stated in court, are privileged and not subject to defamation claims. In fact, lawyers often make privileged statements in court or in official materials and cannot face defamation charges for them.

What Kinds of Damages Are Available for Defamation Claims?

A person who pursues damages for defamation may ask for the same types of damages that any other personal injury plaintiff would. First, economic damages compensate for the direct losses created by the defamation. Examples might include a loss in income or property. Second, plaintiffs may also collect damages for the intangible losses of the incident. Examples of this are wide ranging and may include:

  • Emotional distress or mental anguish
  • Loss in life quality
  • Loss of guidance, partnership, or consortium
  • Loss of social standing

Words can hurt, both economically and emotionally. If a person experiences defamation from the spread of false and injurious information, he or she may be able to collect damages from the harms that result. State rules regarding defamation vary slightly from state to state, but all states allow claimants to pursue damages for defamation of character. However, collecting damages requires that a claimant establish that the statement was false, injurious, published, and unprivileged based on the criteria above. Pursuing these types of claims can be complex and requires the guidance of an experienced attorney.