Public humiliation – the act of embarrassing someone in the eyes of other people – can create a civil cause of action if the victim experiences damage to his reputation, finances or physical body. Public humiliation can be a type of defamation, which is the tort of making false statements that cause damage to someone else, as long as the statements were made with at least a negligent disregard for their truth. If a prank causes physical harm, there may be a case for an assault or battery charge.
Libel is a Written Form of Defamation
Libel – a form of defamation – is the use of written and recorded documents, whether physical or electronic, to disseminate false information. Libelous documents include letters, newspapers, recorded radio broadcasts, blogs, emails and even text messages. You can file a lawsuit for libel if the statements released by the individual or an institution are false and have hurt your reputation. For example, if you’re a teacher and someone wrote a blog post falsely accusing you of molesting a child, and that person had no idea whether that was true or not and didn't bother to investigate, you may be able to sue that person for libel if the post resulted in your losing your job or suffering some other damage.
Read More: Two Types of Defamation
Slander is a Spoken Form of Defamation
Slander is verbal defamation; that is, words spoken out loud. You can file a lawsuit for slander if someone makes a false statement about you, either knowing it was false or taking no action to determine its truth or falsity, and that statement causes you financial loss. For instance, if a person says to your employer that you drink every day while on the job and your employer fires you because of that comment (as long as the statement is false). Filing a lawsuit for slander requires that the act occur in public, as "publication" of the statement is paramount.
Assault and Battery are Crimes
Public humiliation can come in the form of someone physically hurting you or threatening to hurt you in front of others. You can't sue someone for the humiliation you feel because of a public beating or threat, but you can press charges for assault or battery. Assault is the act of threatening to hurt another person physically, such as if someone walks up to you and tells you he's going to hit you with a brick, and he's holding the brick and appears to be serious. Battery is the act of actually hurting someone; using the example, if the assailant actually hits you with the brick.
In some states, assault and battery are no longer distinguished as separate acts. Regardless, if someone embarrasses you by either threatening you or hurting you, the crime is not causing your embarrassment but causing you fear of injury or actual injury.
Litigation a Defamation Lawsuit
When you file a defamation lawsuit, the first step is to prove that the statements were false. Then you must prove that the statement caused you a measurable degree of harm. The elements of defamation differ from state to state, but generally, you'll have to show that the person knew the statement was false, or spoke the statement with a reckless or negligent disregard for whether it was true.
If someone publicly humiliates you, you might have a cause of action against him for defamation if his actions took the form of making false statements about you that injured your reputation to the extent that your life was damaged. If his actions physically hurt you, you might press criminal charges.
An attorney for more than 20 years, Cara O'Neill currently practices in the areas of civil litigation, family law and bankruptcy. She also served as an Administrative Law Judge and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in the areas of employment law, business law and criminal law for a well-known university. Attending the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, she graduated a National member of the Order of the Barristers - an honor society recognizing excellence in courtroom advocacy. She is currently licensed in the state of California.