If you have proof that someone said or wrote damaging things about you that are false, you may have to file a defamation lawsuit to put an end to those defamatory statements.
Defamation has two distinct types: “slander” that is spoken to third parties, and “libel” that comprises written comments like social media posts that damage your reputation or business. These damages may include loss of employment, loss of future income, loss of reputation, mental distress, and more.
This article will cover the steps to filing a lawsuit for defamation, explain the criteria that must be met in order to prove defamation, and weigh defamation suits against one popular alternative: cease and desist letters.
Filing a Defamation Lawsuit
There are several steps required prior to filing a defamation lawsuit.
1. Do you have a valid claim for defamation?
A valid claim for defamation requires that specific criteria be met. In most cases, a valid claim for libel tends to be easier to prove by gathering proof of the written statements or online posts, as opposed to proving oral slander.
2. Send a cease and desist letter for defamation
A demand that a person or company immediately stop defaming you with false statements, combined with your notice of the intent to pursue a defamation case, may be sufficient to avoid going to court. A cease and desist defamation letter can alert the party that defamation has occurred, requiring them to remove all false statements from any websites, social platforms, or forum posts, or face possible legal action.
3. What evidence will you need?
You must assess whether or not you have sufficient evidence to take your case to court. You will need the following evidence to prove your defamation case:
- Proof that false statements of fact were made, consisting of copies of emails, newspaper articles, screenshots of social posts, or affidavits that verbal slander occurred
- Proof that the written or verbal statements were communicated to a third party
- Evidence that there was damage to your reputation or business, by showing, for example, a drop-off in sales or customer reviews referring back to the false statements
- Evidence that the defamatory statements were so damaging that the victim is reasonably expected to have suffered harm
4. If you still need to file a defamation lawsuit, what damages were caused?
A plaintiff in a lawsuit for defamation is entitled to receive damages. There are three different types of damages:
- Actual Damages is compensation awarded by a court in response to the injuries and losses suffered. These damages may include loss of reputation, loss of income, shame, embarrassment, mental anguish, and more.
- Nominal Damages is a small sum awarded to a victim to recognize an infringement of rights that did not result in any significant loss or injury.
- Punitive damages are awarded when a defendant’s conduct has been especially reckless or intentionally malicious.
Proving damages in a defamation case can be challenging. However, there are some defamatory statements that are so damaging that the victim is automatically assumed to have suffered harm. These statements include situations where the plaintiff is accused of:
- Committing a punishable crime or a crime of deviant moral behavior
- Having a stigmatized disease
- Acting improperly or unethically in his or her job
- Engaging in sexual misconduct like domestic violence, sexual assault, or nonconsensual sexual contact
5. Speak with an attorney and file a complaint
To file a complaint against a defendant who has harmed you, speak with an attorney to determine if filing a complaint alone or with the attorney’s assistance is most appropriate for your situation. This will vary not only from case to case, but from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
After filing a defamation lawsuit
Once the complaint has been filed, the defendant will be served with the lawsuit and will have a brief window of time to respond. Attorneys will follow the procedures of any other civil case, including getting written answers to questions under oath, taking video depositions, and filing pre-trial motions.
Possible defenses must be considered. When suing for defamation or defamation of character, keep in mind that the defendant will present defenses for their behavior, likely arguing that the:
- Statements are true
- Statements are merely an honest opinion or a simple mistake
- Statements were not made by them
- A matter of public interest
- Already retracted
Settling a defamation case
A defamation case can be settled at any point before or after a lawsuit has been filed. It is more likely to be settled during the first few months of a case, usually in an amount less than $20,000. Remember that you will be billed monthly by your attorney, and that the discovery phase of a lawsuit may take six months to a year.
Avoiding a defamation lawsuit
An effective way to stop defamatory statements is to send a cease and desist defamation letter. A cease and desist letter can compel someone to unpublish or delete comments, or even issue a public apology. Further, it’s a great way to avoid a potentially costly and time-consuming lawsuit.
Related questions / FAQs
Here are some additional questions related to filing a defamation lawsuit:
Is it worth suing for defamation?
Depending on your situation, it may not be worth your time and trouble to file a lawsuit for defamation.
For example, there may be instances in which:
- A cease and desist letter may be sufficient.
- Your damages may be real, but negligible.
- You’re unable to fully prove your case for defamation.
How much can I claim for defamation of character?
A claim for defamation of character falls under the same rules as any claim for defamation. Defamation of character can include false statements about disease, sexuality, criminality, or immorality. You can attempt to collect whatever damages you deem provable, including loss of future earning capacity, business losses, loss of employment, mental and emotional distress, and legal fees.
What are the grounds for a defamation lawsuit?
The grounds for a lawsuit for defamation consist of negligent or intentionally false statements presented as fact, and publication or communication to a third party, which results in provable damages.
For more information on the defamation process, see our complete guide.