Some defamation lawsuits claim that the person’s good name and reputation has been “ruined.” This article will discuss how to know whether or not you have a defamation case against another.
It is simple to get bogged down in the technicalities of defamation and its origins. But I will spare everyone those extensive details of getting into the first amendment issues in the interest of time.
In general, if you are thinking of bringing a defamation lawsuit against someone else, that person’s statement must be false and defamatory. Moreover, the person must then covey that unprivileged statement to a third party, resulting in some harm.
Defamation divides into three different categories, which we will go over. To determine if you have a claim or not, we first need to see which type you, the defamed, fit in. For ease, we can use the following chart for reference:

Types of Plaintiff

Fault Required

Damages

Public Official

Public Figure

Actual Malice

  1. Knowledge of falsity; or
  2. Reckless disregard as to truth or falsity
  1. Presumed damages
  2. Punitive damages if justified

Private Person/Matter of Public Concern

On a matter of public concern

State has 2 choices:

  1. Negligence as to truth or falsity of statement (Plaintiff must prove falsity)
  2. Actual malice possible
  1. Based upon negligence: Actual injury
  2. Presumed compensatory damages and punitive damages

Private person/Matter of private concern

  1. Perhaps strict liability
  2. Perhaps negligence/falsity standard

Presumed and punitive damages absent showing of actual malice

So the question is, do we need to have any economic harm to have a defamation claim? The answer is that it depends. Please refer to the table below.

[table id=4 /]

DEFINITIONS

  • Defamation per se: words recognized as injurious on their face, without the aid of extrinsic proof, are actionable per se.
  • Defamation per quod: If extrinsic facts or innuendo are needed for the statement to become defamatory, then that statement is per quod.
  • Actual Injury is an impairment of reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering.
  • Malice: can be shown by circumstantial evidence showing, for example, that the story was:
        1. Fabricated;
        2. So inherently improbable that only a reckless man would have put it in circulation; or
        3. Based wholely on a source that the defendant had obvious reasons to doubt, such as an unverified anonymous telephone call.
  • Public Official is a person holding public office.
  • Public Figure: 
    1. General Purpose Public Figure: the plaintiff is a celebrity whose name is a household word and whose ideas and actions the public in fact follows with great interest.
    2. Limited Purpose Public Figure: More commonly, an individual voluntarily becomes involved or is drawn into a particular public controversy and becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.

Some Examples: Someone labels the dean of a state college as a public figure related to their tenure. A candidate for public office is a public figure for purposes of a defamation action. However, the director of a property owners’ association would not be a public figure even though the association had elected the director.

Additionally, even a single interview given to the media may be sufficient to establish Plaintiff’s defamation as a limited-purpose public figure.

  • Clear and Convincing Evidence is a firm belief that the allegations are true. It is more than a Preponderance of evidence but less than Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in criminal cases. In Civil cases, this is the ultimate burden of proof and the hardest that the Plaintiff needs to meet.
  • The preponderance of Evidence: Greater weight of evidence. Generally, it is more than 50%.

HOW TO DETERMINE WHETHER SOMEONE IS A PUBLIC FIGURE?

    1. Define the public controversy;
    2. Examine the plaintiff’s involvement in the controversy; and
    3. Determine whether the alleged defamation related to the plaintiff’s participation in the controversy.
  • Public Controversy: an issue that generates discussion, debate and dissent in the relevant community. It must be more than merely newsworthy, and does not include an essentially private concern such as divorce. Rather, matter is a public controversy if it will affect people who do not directly participate in it.
  • Negligence: plaintiff must show that the defendant failed to exercise ordinary care.
  • Public concern: speech that relates to political, social, or other concern to the community.
  • Compensatory damages: Award given to Plaintiff for compensation of damages, to replace what was lost and nothing more.
  • Punitive damages: the purpose is to punish the defendant for their egregious conduct so they don’t do what they have done EVER again.
  • Private Person: A private figure is one who has not sought out the public spotlight—nor had it shone on them unwillingly.

IS THE PLAINTIFF REQUIRED TO REQUEST A RETRACTION BEFORE SUBMITTING THEIR CLAIM OF DEFAMATION LAWSUIT?

In short, if punitive damages are sought, then you have to request a retraction at least 7 days before filing a lawsuit.

WHAT IS PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION?

  1. Statements made in good faith in the performance of a public duty.
  2. Statements made in good faith in the performance of a legal or moral private duty.
  3. Statements made with a good faith intent on the part of the speaker to protect his or her interest in a matter in which it is concerned.
  4. Statements made in good faith as part of an act in furtherance of the right of free speech or the right to petition government or a redress of grievances under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia in connection with an issue of public interest or concern as defined by O.C.G.A. § 9-11-11.1(c).
  5. Fair and honest reports of the proceedings of legislative or judicial bodies.
  6. Fair and honest reports of court proceedings.
  7. Comments of course, fairly made, on the circumstances of a case in which he or she is involved and on the conduct of the parties in connection with that case.
  8. Truthful reports of information received from any arresting officer or police authorities.
  9. Comments on the acts of public men or public women in their public capacity.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

One year. This limitation period begins to run when the defamatory statement is uttered or published. An action must be brought within one year from the date of the alleged defamatory acts regardless of whether plaintiff had knowledge of the acts at the time of their occurrence.