Defamation is a cause of action that does not involve physical injury. Most defamation suits allege damage to reputation, emotional suffering or lost economic opportunities. When calculating damages for defamation, it may be possible to place a dollar amount on intangible injuries, known as general damages. Actual damages are those that are ascertainable and may be recoverable for loss of assets of employment due to the defamatory remark. Punitive damages may also be available if the defamation is particularly malicious and willfully calculated to harm the plaintiff.
Calculate actual damages suffered by the defamation. If the defamation results in loss of a job or contract, the plaintiff can easily add up lost assets as a result of the injury. The plaintiff must be able to satisfy the court that he would not have been fired or released from employment absent the defamatory action. Celebrities who are defamed may be able to recover actual damages lost as a result of being unable to procure work based upon the defamatory statement.
Calculate general damages. General damages are those involving a loss of reputation, embarrassment, shame and emotional distress. It is difficult to assign a quantifiable dollar amount to these types of damages. If the plaintiff has experienced any of these effects of defamation, he should request that the jury consider these factors while it is deciding upon a verdict. This request should be included in the original defamation petition.
Request punitive damages. In general, the civil justice system is not designed to punish parties, only to reimburse them. Damages are meant to make the plaintiff "whole" again. However, some conduct is so egregious and malicious that the court may allow a jury to award punitive damages above and beyond general and actual damages. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant for his actions and deter others from committing similar acts. These damages can be requested in the defamation complaint and the court will instruct the jury to determine an appropriate amount of punitive damages.
Understand the possible defenses to defamation. Defendants can defend against a defamation suit by proving that the statement is true; which is a complete defense. If the statement was a fair comment about something in the public interest, this can serve as a defense if the defendant can prove that the comment was made without malice and the opinion was honestly held. If the statement is accidentally disseminated and was never meant to be made public, this may mitigate the defendant's liability.
Stephanie Reid has been writing professionally since 2007, with work published in the Virginia Bar Association's "Family Law Quarterly" and the "Whittier Journal of Child and Family Advocacy." She received her Juris Doctor from Regent University and her Bachelor of Arts in French and child development from Florida State University. Reid is admitted to practice law in Delaware and Maryland.