Can you sue someone for making a false statement in the workplace?
Nobody likes it when someone says something untrue about them. But just because someone says something that’s untrue, doesn’t mean you can sue them (even if you may want to).
In this article, we’ll take a look at the legal definition of defamation, including what you need to prove to succeed in a defamation lawsuit and what damages you can recover.
What is defamation?
Defamation (sometimes called “defamation of character”) is a false statement that harms a person’s reputation.
There are 2 forms of defamation:
- Slander refers to a false statement that is spoken and harms a person’s reputation.
- Libel refers to a false statement that is written and harms a person’s reputation.
Defamation is not a crime, but a person who has been defamed can file a civil lawsuit against the person who did the defaming for damages.
In the landmark United States Supreme Court case Rosenblatt v. Baer (1966), Justice Potter Stewart explained the reasoning behind the right to sue someone for defamation:
“The right of a man to the protection of his own reputation from unjustified invasion and wrongful hurt reflects no more than our basic concept of the essential dignity and worth of every human being.”
Let’s look at an example of defamation to better understand when it applies:
In an effort to lure away some of John’s prospective clients, Kelly composes a post on her town’s public Facebook page. The post states that John has a drug addiction and needs to sell lots of homes in order to feed his addiction. Kelly has no reason to believe that John actually has a drug addiction.
Soon after Kelly publishes her post, John starts having trouble attracting clients. He fails to sell a single home over the next 6 months.
In the above example, Kelly can be sued for libel because she wrote a false statement that hurt John’s reputation and career.
How can I prove defamation?
To prove defamation, you need to establish that the statement made about you meets the following criteria:
- The statement was published,
- The statement was false, and
- The statement was injurious (caused harm).
Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.
Proving that a defamatory statement was published
With respect to defamation, the term “published” simply means that a third person (someone other than you and the person making the statement) heard or read the statement.
For example, if your coworker accuses you of stealing office supplies and no one else hears the accusation, you can’t sue them for defamation. However, if your coworker accuses you of stealing office supplies in the middle of a company meeting and everyone hears the accusation, then this criteria of defamation that the defamatory statement was published has been met.
Proving that a defamatory statement was false
You can’t sue someone for defamation if the statement was true. What’s more, you can’t sue someone for defamation if the statement was an opinion. Rather, you need to be able to prove that the statement at issue was objectively false.
Let’s look at an example:
Laura is a second-grade teacher who doesn’t believe in assigning homework to her students. In the middle of a faculty meeting, Bernard, another second-grade teacher, tells the rest of the faculty that there are some things he wants to get off his chest. He stands up and makes the following statements:
- Laura is the worst teacher he’s ever worked with, and
- Laura doesn’t even assign her students homework.
Can Laura sue Bernard for defamation?
No. Laura can’t sue Bernard for defamation because the statements he made were either opinion (Laura is the worst teacher he’s ever worked with) or true (Laura doesn’t assign homework).
Proving that a defamatory statement was injurious
Although a statement might be untrue and offensive, it can’t form the basis for a defamation lawsuit unless it causes you some actual objective harm.
Common examples of harm caused by a defamatory statement include:
- The person lost business
- The person was fired from their job
- The person was shunned by their friends and family
- The person was harassed by the press
- The person had a stress-induced heart attack
In defamation lawsuits, one of the most challenging things for plaintiffs to establish is that the defamatory statement was the cause of their harm. Often, defendants are able to argue that something else (poor work performance in the case of someone who lost their job, poor health in the case of someone who suffered a heart attack, etc.) was the actual cause of their harm.
However, there are certain statements that are considered so obviously harmful that you don’t need to prove actual damages. Among the categories of statements that constitute defamation per se are: statements that a person is unable or lacks the integrity to carry out their employment.
Proving defamation as a public figure
Generally speaking, it’s harder to prove defamation if you’re a public figure (for example, a movie star, professional athlete, or political figure).
For a public figure to succeed in a defamation lawsuit, they need to prove all of the elements described above. But the public figure also needs to prove that the person who made the defamatory statement did so with “actual malice.”
Actual malice means the person making the defamatory statement did so with the knowledge that the statement was false.
What damages can I recover from a defamation lawsuit?
In most states, you can recover the following damages from a defamation lawsuit:
- Economic damages are the monetary losses caused by the defamatory statement. For example, if you lost your job because of a defamatory statement, you can recover the lost wages. Similarly, if you suffered a physical injury as a result of a defamatory statement (such as a stress-induced heart attack), you can recover the associated medical expenses.
- Non-economic damages are the non-monetary losses caused by the defamatory statement. Non-economic damages may include the mental anguish and emotional distress you underwent as a result of the defamatory statement. Non-economic damages are harder to prove and some states do not allow them in defamation lawsuits.
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant. In states that allow punitive damages, you must show that the defendant acted with malice in order to recover them.
Should I hire an attorney for my workplace defamation case?
Defamation cases tend to be highly emotional cases. After all, no one likes it when someone says something about them that’s not true. However, it doesn’t always make financial sense to hire an attorney when someone makes a false statement about you.
If the economic damages caused by the defamatory statement are low, it probably makes sense to sue the person in small claims court without an attorney (if at all). Small claims courts are a way for people to recover money in cases that are too small to be worth going through regular litigation, which can be costly and time-consuming. There’s not a minimum amount you can sue for in small claims court, but there are maximum amounts that vary by state.
If you believe you’ve suffered more extensive damages as a result of the defamatory statement (for example, you lost your job), it makes sense to meet with an attorney. Most initial consultations are free and you can find an experienced attorney using our free online directory.
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