Defamation is the legal basket that holds both libel and slander. It is the communication of untrue statements about someone that unjustly hurt her reputation. Civil defamation constitutes a cause of action against that person for damages.
What are the injurious effects of defamation? The injury caused by libel and slander is damage to the person's reputation.
Purpose of Defamation Laws
Most people are taught when young that it isn't nice to tell lies, so it's easy to think of defamation laws as punishing liars. That's because, in order to constitute defamation, the stories someone is spreading must be false.
But civil defamation laws are not intended to punish people for bad behavior. Rather, legislatures enact civil defamation laws to protect the reputations of individuals or businesses from untrue statements.
Libel and Slander
Both libel and slander are types of untrue statements. The difference between them is how the statements are presented and shared. Libel refers to statements that are written or published, such as in a book or a newspaper. Slander means an audible statement, words spoken by one person to another or heard on a radio broadcast.
Definition of a Defamatory Statement
Both individuals and business entities can bring an action for defamation. Whoever files the suit is called the plaintiff, while the other party is termed the defendant. An essential element in all types of defamation is that the defendant knowingly or negligently published a "defamatory statement" about the plaintiff. What exactly does that mean?
The law considers a communication defamatory if it is likely to harm the reputation of another person or business in a way that lowers the person or business in the estimation of the community, or makes third persons less likely to associate with the person or frequent the business.
Examples of Defamatory Statements
It is not hard to come up with examples of defamatory statements, since any untrue statement that might damage someone's reputation will qualify. Some examples of defamatory statements are:
- An untrue statement linking the plaintiff to a serious crime, especially one involving moral turpitude or a felony.
- An untrue suggestion that the plaintiff is in dire straits financially.
- An untrue suggestion that the plaintiff has some contagious and/or dread disease like HIV.
- An untrue statement that impugns the character or integrity of the plaintiff.
- An untrue statement that the plaintiff is committing illegal actions or is intending to so so.
- An untrue suggestion that the plaintiff has some physical defect that would prevent others from associating with him.
- An untrue statement that the plaintiff is about to declare bankruptcy.
Damages for Libel and Slander
A plaintiff in a defamation case is entitled to all special damages suffered if they arose from the libel or slander. These are the types of losses that can be calculated exactly to the dollar, like lost earnings and future lost earning capacity.
They also include any other lost business or economic opportunities that the plaintiff suffered or is likely to suffer as a result of the defamatory statement. All health expenses are also special damages if they arose as a result of the defamatory communications.
In some cases and in some states, a plaintiff is also entitled to recover "pain and suffering" damages. In a defamation case, this can include anxiety, mental anguish, emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life as well as impairment to the plaintiff's reputation and standing in the community. However, in some states, a victim of slander can recover non-economic damages only for economic damages, or if the defamatory speech was of a particularly prejudicial kind.
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