In most defamation cases, there are two primary types of charges—libel and slander. These words are often used interchangeably, but in the courtroom, they are distinctly different from one another.
Do you know the difference? Even if you do, the following will cover everything you need to know about a defamation suit and its subcategories.
What is defamation?
Defamation of character is a broad term that encompasses any false statement that results in damage to someone’s reputation, whether by the general public or to a specific client. Judicially speaking, it’s not considered a crime, but rather, an intentional tort (civil infringement of a right) that can become a lawsuit.
In matters of a defamation suit, the party that claims to have been defamed can sue the person who performed the ‘character assassination’ (CA) for damages. Whether it’s in-person or online defamation, both can lead to legal troubles that may require a lawyer. As such, it’s a very fine balance, constitutionally speaking, since the courts have to balance two competing interests:
- Citizens shouldn’t go around destroying others’ lives or livelihoods by spreading lies and untruths about them.
- Citizens have the first amendment right to speak freely without worrying about potential litigation. And this includes insults, disparaging remarks, and opinions.
In a free society where people are able to share their thoughts, beliefs, or opinions without fear of government interference, this will inevitably cause conflict and disagreement. Although that’s not an inherently bad thing, it does make the line between a defamation lawsuit and free speech rather grey. So, with this tricky balance in mind, the courts created a list of criteria that must be met in order to be considered defamation.
The standards for defamation
In order to successfully sue for defamation, the aggrieved party must prove the following:
A false statement was made – The statement made about the plaintiff or their company was demonstrably untrue.
The false statement caused harm – The defamatory claim damaged the person’s and/or the business’ reputation, causing financial loss or hardship as a result.
The statement was shared – The message was conveyed to a third party (not internally), whether an individual, group, or the general public.
The statement didn’t contain confidential information – For example, a testimonial statement made in court is confidential and can’t be sued for defamation. This is what is known as a privileged statement. Thus, for it to be defamation, the statement must be unprivileged.
So what’s a real world example of this?
In 2017, comedy actress Rebel Wilson sued Bauer Media, the company responsible for publishing the celebrity gossip Women’s Day Magazine. Wilson alleged that an article published by the magazine lied about her age, name, early life, and critical life events, causing her to lose business opportunities for the next year. Using the criteria above, we can see how this example satisfies the criteria of defamation:
The publisher published several demonstrably false statements about her, printing an incorrect name, age, and upbringing.
Wilson said she lost several key roles due to the magazine’s portrayal of her as a serial liar, resulting in substantial financial loss.
The alleged articles were read and shared by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of online and print readers.
The magazine’s statement was not considered confidential or privileged.
Confident that they were in the clear, Bauer Media refused to settle out of court for $200,000. In the end, the court found Bauer Media guilty of defamatory libel. As a result, they ended up paying Wilson 20 times more than the proposed settlement, to the tune of $4,000,000.
Slander vs. libel
As mentioned, libel and slander are two different types of defamation. The difference between them is small, but important.
Libel – Defamation typically linked to statements that have been published or expressed in writing. That said, it can be conveyed through other visual mediums, including:
- Art Sculptures
- Social Media
So, if you make false claims—whether intentionally or not—about your competitors on social media or in your marketing materials, you could be sued by them for libel.
Slander – Defamation defined as “the action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.” It is a spoken lie or hurtful comment that is told to one group that damages a third party. These slanderous statements can cause serious harm to a company’s reputation. However, because they are spoken and not written, they can be hard to prove.
For instance, you and another contractor are vying for the same remodel project. To try and convince the client to go with you, you tell the client that your competitor did bad work and regularly cheated his customers. A few months later, the client lets slip what you claimed to the competitor, and they sue you for your slanderous statements.
In most cases, the court tends to judge libel much more harshly for a few key reasons:
- There’s demonstrable proof of what is written, whereas slander relies on hearsay.
- Libel typically reaches a much larger magnitude of visibility.
- Printed defamation doesn’t simply float into the ether like the spoken word.
With these factors in mind, it’s also worth noting that many states treat spoken statements on social media such as Instagram or YouTube to be libel since they have much broader reach. As such, they tend to consider slander as verbal defamation that’s shared to a few people.
Additionally, a defamation case can be filed against both the person responsible for slander, and the company responsible for libel (the publisher). Let’s say that Forbes runs a story and quotes someone without fact checking. That someone works at a particularly important company, one that misses out on closing an acquisition due to this incorrect statement. In this case, the company could sue the individual journalist for slander and Forbes for libel.
In order for the plaintiff to defend themself from slander or libel, they must prove any of the following:
- Their claim was, in fact, true.
- The other party gave them permission to make the statement.
- The statement was privileged.
- The statement was communicated or said accidentally.
General liability and defamation
Many general liability policies will cover the costs of a defamation claim, so long as you meet the following conditions:
- The libel or slander occurred within the coverage territory and during the policy period.
- The defamatory statement was made by you or an Additional Insured in relation to another business. Thus, you are being sued for defaming another company or person.
- The oral or verbal statement must have been published and contain disparagements of someone else’s services or products.
In such cases, the policy would help to cover the legal fees of a lawyer and punitive damages caused by the defamation.
General liability insurance and professional liability insurance are meant to shield your business from the various liabilities you may face on any given day, whether they harm your clients or your own reputation.
Even if you’re on your way to a gig and don’t have any coverage yet, with Thimble’s on-demand liability insurance, you can turn on a policy that goes for hours, days, or months. It’s insurance that works when you do (and lets you save when you’re off).
If you’re worried about a defamation lawsuit, our professionals can help. Thimble will provide you with the right coverage so you can stay protected in the case of a lawsuit against you or your business. Need instant, affordable coverage? Check out the Thimble mobile app or website and receive a free quote instantly.
It takes less than 60 seconds to ensure that you, and your small business, are protected from liability. Diving into the details of terms like these can make or break your business, and you’re off to a great start. Keep going with Thimble.
Our editorial content is intended for informational purposes only and is not written by a licensed insurance agent. Terms and conditions for rate and coverage may vary by class of business and state.