Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will never hurt you. Or will they? When someone says something that damages your reputation, it might be worthwhile to sue for defamation.
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it,” according to Benjamin Franklin. Defamation law recognizes this. Specifically, it allows people who have been unjustly publicly badmouthed to defend their good name.
Libel and Slander
Defamation is a false statement that is “published” to third parties and results in injury to your reputation or deters others from associating with you. The critical elements of libel and slander are:
1. That the statement was published
2. The statement injured reputation
3. The statement was false
Slander is oral defamation, as opposed to libel, which is written defamation. A slanderous harmful statement is spoken, exposing a third party to lies that hurt you.
Terrible Truths OK
While it’s not nice to do so, we may insult each other falsely if no one overhears. We may also truthfully tell when things are terrible. That is not slander. In other words, there are no legal repercussions for saying terrible things about a person, so long as those things are actually true.
What makes a statement slander is its falsity, exposure to a third party, and harm. In fact, truth is a defense to slander, as is opinion.
Damages for Expenses and Loss
To recover damages for slander, you must show that there was actual injury to your reputation. Unlike in libel cases, where harm to reputation is often easier to asses because the statement is in writing, in slander cases there is no assumed harm, nor assumed damages. If the plaintiff cannot show injury, the court will not find compensable harm.
Rather, in slander, an injured plaintiff can recover actual damages for expenses resulting from the injurious statement. That can include money spent on therapy or funds lost in wages, dropped business or damage to trade, profession, or occupation.
In particularly egregious cases, a plaintiff may win punitive damages for slander. But that is rare and involves actual malice. If you can show that the defamer sought to deliberately harm you, the court may punish with damages designed to deter future defamation and remind the defendant of the preciousness of reputation.
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