When someone tells lies about you—whether verbally or in writing—you may wonder if you can sue. After all, lies can cause you real damage. If someone spreads personal rumors about your character, your reputation might be harmed in your community among your friends and family. If someone spreads falsehoods about your competence or skill, your professional reputation might suffer, resulting in lost business or career opportunities.
Even though it can be difficult to quantify the exact amount of economic harm, the law provides causes of action against people who lie about you. Defamation is a false statement communicated to someone else to damage your reputation or good name. Defamation through writing is called “libel”; spoken defamation is called “slander.”
Standards to Prove Libel
To win damages against someone who has libeled you, you must prove the written statement was:
- harmed your reputation or your business’s reputation
- published to at least one other person
- about you or your business specifically, and
- made with some degree of fault and intention.
Note that a false and harmful statement broadcast over the media, whether on television, over the Internet, or via something similar, is still considered libel, even if it wasn’t in writing.
Imagine, for example, that you are an accountant. You are always ethical and cautious, and have a good reputation among clients and colleagues. And yet, someone writes an op-ed in a local newspaper accusing you of stealing your clients’ money. The claim has no basis in reality. The author is an individual with a personal vendetta against you; perhaps for a personal slight years ago; and writes the article simply to hurt you. This qualifies as defamation, specifically libel. The author has written a knowingly false statement about you and published it to at least one other person.
Perhaps the most important element of a libel claim is falsity. Truth is an absolute defense to a claim of libel. In other words, if there was truth to the statement that you had indeed stolen clients’ money, then you would not be able to succeed on a claim for libel. Moreover, libel is a false statement of fact, not opinion. It is libelous for someone to write that you stole money from a client when, in fact, you did not. But it would not be libelous for someone to write that he did not like working with you, or found you to be an unprofessional accountant. These sorts of statements, whether they are “true” or not, are a matter of opinion.
Different standards of fault apply depending on who you are. If you're a public figure, such as a politician, celebrity, or some other well-known person, it is more difficult to establish libel. Courts believe that such individuals should expect a certain degree of public criticism, by virtue of their own decision to choose public lives. Public figures must prove that they were defamed with “actual malice.” In other words, they must show that the person defaming them knew that the statement was false and would harm their reputation, or recklessly disregarded these concerns.
If you’re not a public figure, you have to prove only that the person defaming you was negligent. That is, you have to show the person disregarded the duty of care to not make knowingly false statements about another person.
Standards for Proving Slander
Slander is very similar to libel in that it also involves a knowingly false statement. The difference is that it lacks the requirement of “publication” in writing or through other media. Slander is spoken defamation, whether the false statement is made at a cocktail party or at a local town hall.
Importantly, you don't have to prove actual harm to your reputation from slander to collect damages if someone says something untrue about you that:
- affects your business, trade or profession
- implies you committed a crime, or
- leads to the conclusion that you have a loathsome disease (such as a sexually transmitted disease).
Otherwise, you'll have to prove you've actually been damaged financially in order to collect for slanderous behavior. This can be hard to do. After all, if someone spreads rumors that you have a sexually transmitted disease, how can you quantify the economic harm done to you? Reputational harm is far more difficult to quantify, and thus courts do not force plaintiffs to do so.
Going to Court With a Slander or Libel Claim
If you've been libeled by a public media such as a newspaper, TV station, or magazine, the first thing to do is to demand a retraction. If the defamation is ongoing, you will probably want to send a "cease and desist" letter demanding that the defamation stop immediately. These sorts of letters serve as evidence to the court that you acted in good faith to negotiate a deal before jumping to litigation.
A slander case is more difficult to prove, as a verbal statement isn’t lasting. It’s a good idea to keep a log of when and where the slanderous comments occur, and exactly what was said. Be sure to write down the names and phone numbers of witnesses to the verbal statements.
The amount of time you have to file a lawsuit—called a “statute of limitations"—can be as little as one year for defamation. So, contact a lawyer right away if you think you may need to sue in order to correct the damage done to your reputation.
Calculating Damages for Slander or Libel
If you've been defamed, you may receive a money award from a court to compensate for your damaged reputation or lost business. You might also collect "punitive damages." This is money awarded to punish the person defaming you for particularly reprehensible behavior.
However, be aware that it can be difficult to prove damages in defamation cases, absent extraordinary circumstances. In other words, you are unlikely to win thousands of dollars in damages merely because someone says something negative about you!
Contacting a Communications Law Attorney
Each slander and libel case is different, and different standards may apply. If you think you've been slandered or libeled, it's best to contact a local attorney with experience in defamation law.