Being accused of libel is no trivial matter. If someone alleges that you published a lie about them or their business, you could be facing a defamation lawsuit. If another can prove that you damaged their reputation with a defamatory statement, they could claim compensation for financial losses and other damages. If the case goes to court and you lose, you could face steep compensation payments and legal costs.
If someone accuses you of libel, you should promptly contact an attorney. If you own a business, call your insurance company as soon as possible, as you may have coverage against libel lawsuits. Morgan & Morgan can help. Our attorneys can protect you from baseless accusations and frivolous lawsuits. Contact us today for more information in a free consultation.
What Is Libel?
Libel describes the act of ruining another’s reputation by making a false written statement about them. In legal terms, libel is also called “defamation of character.” For a statement to be defamatory, it must be untrue and cause actual harm. There are two types of defamation in the eyes of the law: libel and slander.
Libel describes a written statement about another that is false and defamatory. Libel can occur on websites, social media, websites, printed magazines, and other written media.
Slander, unlike libel, refers to verbal statements that are false and damaging. Therefore, slander can be much harder to prove than libel.
Anyone can potentially commit libel or slander. However, defamation claims often originate from:
- Former employees
- Business competitors
- Acquaintances bearing a grudge
A good reputation can be crucial for a harmonious home life and career. If someone else alleges that you libeled them, they could claim compensation for lost business income, emotional distress, and other damages. Therefore, make sure you take such accusations seriously and get legal advice and help as soon as possible.
How Can Another Prove Libel?
Nobody can allege libel without having the evidence to back up the accusation. Moreover, defamation lawsuits can be tough to litigate. According to the Legal Information Institute (LII), the person bringing a lawsuit against you must prove that:
- A false statement existed
- The statement was published
- You showed negligence or malice in releasing the statement
- The false statement caused actual harm such as income loss
1. A False Statement Existed
If you merely made a negative or hurtful remark about someone or their business on Twitter or Facebook, it is unlikely that they would succeed with a lawsuit. Moreover, if your statement is truthful, it does not qualify as defamatory in the eyes of the law. The burden of proof is on the plaintiff (the person accusing you of libel and filing a lawsuit). If your accuser cannot prove that the statement you published is a lie, they do not have a case against you.
2. The Statement Was Published
If someone accuses you of libel, the statement in question must be written and published. In addition, you must have shared the injurious statement with third parties to qualify as libel.
3. You Showed Negligence or Malice in Publishing the Statement
The accuser must prove that you either intended to cause harm or negligently injured the claimant’s reputation.
4. The False Statement Caused Harm
Without showing actual damages, the person accusing you of libel does not have a case against you for compensation. Damages can include but are not limited to:
- Lost income such as wages or business revenue
- Lost future earning capacity
- Emotional distress
- Damaged relationships with business associates, friends, and family
Your Accuser Has the Burden of Proof
The individual accusing you of libel has the burden of proof to show that they suffered damages due to your false written statement. In particular, they have to show that you intended to harm them and that they or their business suffered actual harm.
If someone alleges that you defamed them or their business, our experienced defamation lawyers could help defend you against such accusations and lawsuits. If someone falsely accuses you of a crime connected to libel accusations, you could even turn the tables and file a lawsuit against them.
When You Cannot Be Sued for Libel
Someone who accuses you of libel will find it impossible to sue for damages if your statement was truthful, an opinion, or part of a privileged conversation. Retracting an injurious statement can also serve as a defense in most states.
Opinions are privileged according to law. As such, nobody can be sued for expressing their opinion. However, there can be blurred lines about what constitutes a statement of fact and what counts as an opinion. Generally, you could still be on the hook for defamation if you label a statement as an opinion. For example, to say, “Bob committed a crime, in my opinion,” could count as a defamatory statement, as it can be proven false. However, mentioning that Bob is an unkempt and lazy jerk is a statement of opinion as it cannot be proven true or false.
If you make an accurate factual statement about a person or their business, they cannot sue you for defamation. Truth is an absolute defense to any libel accusation. For example, suppose you posted a review on Google about a restaurant, mentioning a cockroach infestation. For the restaurant owner to have a case against you, they have to prove that there was no cockroach infestation and your statement was false.
Privileged statements are generally protected from libel lawsuits. For example, if you are a witness at a trial and make a defamatory comment during proceedings, you would be protected from a defamation lawsuit. Other types of privileged statements can include:
- Communication during legal proceedings and legislative debates
- Statements made by high government officials
- Statements made during political speeches and broadcasts
- Communication between spouses
Statements About a Group
If you published a defamatory statement about a large group without naming someone directly, individual members of the group generally could not sue you. The two exceptions to this rule include:
- The group is small, and your statement clearly refers to a specific individual without naming them
- The statement and circumstances make it obvious that you are referring to an individual rather than the group
Retraction of Libelous Statement
In most states, retracting a defamatory statement and apologizing serves as a defense to a defamation lawsuit. However, if you receive a retraction request, consider consulting with an attorney as you could be facing a lawsuit and publishing a retraction can be interpreted as admitting liability.
Higher Burden of Proof for Officials and Celebrities
People in the public eye, such as government officials or celebrities, have less protection under the law. Therefore, if you are accused of libel by an elected official or another person in the public eye, they face a much higher burden for proving their case and suing you for damages.
In general, not only do such persons have to prove all the elements of an “ordinary” defamation lawsuit, but they must also prove that the injurious statement was made with “actual malice.” Actual malice is the legal standard established explicitly by the Supreme Court for libel cases from public figures seeking to recover compensation, particularly from media outlets.
Proof of libel must also include “clear and convincing evidence.” The defamatory statement must be published with the intent to harm the public figure. Misspeaking about someone or expressing an opinion would not count as libel.
Your Next Best Steps if You Are Accused of Libel
Any time we write something critical about another or a business on a social media account, in a blog post, or a newspaper, we leave ourselves open to libel accusations. If you receive a notice of a defamation lawsuit, your first step should be contacting an attorney. If you are a business owner and have a liability insurance policy, also contact your insurance company as soon as possible to determine if you have coverage. Your insurer could help you with defending a libel claim.
Time Is of the Essence
If you face a defamation lawsuit, you may only have three weeks to respond to the complaint, depending on your state. Insurance companies also generally require timely notice of a claim. If you do not act quickly, court proceedings against you could progress, and your insurer may deny coverage.
Find an Attorney to Handle the Accusation
If you are accused of libel, consider finding an experienced attorney who can handle the allegations, represent you in a lawsuit, and protect your rights. Ways to find an excellent attorney can include recommendations from business associates and using internet resources such as your state’s bar association website. Morgan & Morgan’s libel attorneys can be by your side, help diffuse any baseless allegations, and fight lawsuits against you.