Being accused of libel can damage your reputation, career, life, or both. It's even worse if you have a business. This article explains where to go if accused of libel, including everything you need to know about this kind of accusation.
They say bad news spreads faster than good news — that's something you'll experience firsthand if accused of libel. The sad truth is that some of these accusations are never true. But given that we live in a lawsuit-happy world, being accused of libel shouldn't come as a surprise to you.
It's never a great idea to ignore the accusations, whether or not they are true. Ignoring such accusations could make things even worse for you down the road. What sounds like a mere allegation could turn into an expensive lawsuit real quick.
For this reason, you need to understand the steps to take if you encounter such a problem, as discussed below.
Contact an Attorney
Contacting an attorney is the first and most important thing to do when someone makes false accusations against you or your company. However, you shouldn't hire just any attorney — you need someone experienced in defamation suits.
This is because defamation suits are complex, and you don't want to work with an attorney who'll cost you thousands or even millions of dollars in compensation. To further understand the importance of hiring a defamation attorney, let's discuss the elements of a defamation case.
Elements of a Defamation Case
The first element of a defamation case is proving that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement and that they knew or should have known that the statement was false. So if someone accuses you of defamation, they must prove that you indeed knew or should have known that the statement you made about them was false. The same also applies if the statement was made by your employee if you run a business.
It's important to note that some false statements may not harm the reputation of the person or entity the statement targets. This means that the statement may not be considered defamatory if it is part of a larger whole or partly inaccurate.
Secondly, the plaintiff must prove that they were the target of the statement you or your employee supposedly made. So if the statement was vague or didn't identify a specific entity or individual, it cannot pass as defamation. For a defamation case to be established, the target of the alleged defamation must be clearly defined by the alleged defamatory remarks. This also means that just because an individual or entity feels that they were the target of a particular defamatory statement does not give them the right to sue.
Here's a hypothetical example of an unidentified target.
A famous artist releases a controversial song supposedly targeting a rival artist. However, the artist does not mention any names or provide specific details that would clearly identify the rival artist.
But on the other hand, the rival artist feels like they are the song's target and decide to file a defamation lawsuit. In that case, it may be difficult to prove that indeed they were the target of defamation if no information clearly identifies them in the song.
Here's another example.
Have you ever wondered why some movies contain disclaimers stating that any resemblance to actual, living people is purely confidential? They do this because they know there's a high chance that they may face countless lawsuits for alleged defamation. Therefore, they cannot be sued for defamation unless the movie clearly mentions names or provides other identifying information about an individual or entity, such as their contact information, address, etc.
The third element of a defamation lawsuit involves proving that the defendant, in this case, you, published the defamatory remarks to at least one-third party who is not the target. An excellent example of such a scenario is when someone publishes slanderous remarks about another party in a newspaper. In this case, the newspaper is considered the third party that's not the target of the defamation but is only used as a vehicle to transport the defamatory remarks.
Lastly, the plaintiff must prove that the defamation damaged their reputation or had a similar effect. For example, if they lost their job due to the alleged defamatory remarks.
Understanding How Libel Works
Just because you have been sued for libel does not necessarily mean that you're guilty. Let's look at different scenarios to understand this concept even further.
If you say something truthful and it ends up damaging someone's reputation, you cannot be sued for defamation. For such accusations to be considered defamation, they must be actually false. As discussed earlier in the elements of a defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the accusations against them were false and that you knew or should have known that they were false.
Here's another example.
John and Jane end their two-year romantic relationship. Jane owns a popular restaurant down the street. Out of bitterness, John publishes a false statement claiming that the food served at Jane's restaurant contains deadly bacteria. He warns customers from visiting Jane's restaurant. As a result, Jane's restaurant experiences a sharp drop in sales, sending her into debt.
From the example above, Jane can sue John for libel because of his false accusations that damaged her business's reputation and discouraged sales.
Now let's look at the other side of the coin.
Suppose John's statements are true and can be proven. In that case, Jane cannot sue him for libel. Additionally, if Jane's reputation is already ruined due to a related reason, she cannot sue John for libel.
For example, if Jane's restaurant has a history of selling contaminated food, it may be difficult to sue John for libel, unless under rare, extraordinary circumstances.
It's also important to understand that you cannot be sued for libel if you had the other party's consent to publish certain content about them.
Let's assume you're a journalist interviewing a celebrity, and they make a controversial statement that turns out to be false. You then publish the interview, and the celebrity loses their endorsements. In that case, they cannot sue you for libel even if the statement they made was false. This is because consent is considered a valid defense when it comes to defamation lawsuits.
Understanding Malice in Defamation Lawsuits
In some defamation lawsuits, the defendant cannot be found guilty unless they acted with malice. However, the term 'malice' is broad and may be interpreted differently depending on the context of the defamation lawsuit.
Malice is often considered in libel cases involving celebrities and public figures. Given that certain aspects of their lives are usually in the public domain, they are held to a different standard for proving libel.
For instance, they will have to prove that the defendant had actual knowledge of the false statement or demonstrated a reckless disregard for whether the statement was false.
But then there's also the issue of qualified privilege in a libel lawsuit. Here's everything you need to know about it.