Libel And Slander Are Both Forms Of Defamation
Defamation is a false statement about another person that exposes that person to “public scorn, hatred, contempt or ridicule, thereby discouraging others in the community from having a good opinion of, or from associating or dealing with, that person.” (This is a quote from the Maryland Pattern Jury Instructions – what a judge uses to explain the law to a jury.)
A spoken defamation is a slander, and a written defamation is a libel.
A false statement is not a defamation unless it is “communicated to a third person,” someone other than the person about whom the statement is made. If you call me a felon to my face, and no one else hears it, that is not a defamation even if it is false. But if you call me a felon at the top of your lungs in a business meeting and many others hear you, I have a claim against you if since I am not a felon (honest!).
What Exactly Is A “False Statement”?
A false statement is a statement that is substantially incorrect. Minor errors do not make a statement false if the substance or main thrust of the statement is true. If you accuse me of being convicted of a crime 3 years ago, and it was actually 4 years ago, your statement is substantially true and it is not a defamation.
In some states, including Maryland, a defamation must be a false statement of a fact, not just an opinion. You can say “In my opinion, Gibbons is a liar and a crook” but you cannot say “Gibbons is a liar and a crook” when he is not. The first is an opinion but the second is a statement of fact and, if incorrect and communicated to a third person, is actionable.
To Recover For Defamation, Do You Have To Prove That You Were Actually Harmed By The False Statement?
That depends on whether the speaker actually knew the statement was false.
In Maryland, if you knew a statement about me was false but made it anyway (this is called actual malice), there is a presumption that the statement harmed me, and I can be awarded money damages even without evidence of actual harm.
On the other hand, if the your statement about me was wrong, but you did not know it was wrong, I must show actual damages – for example, financial loss, injury to my reputation, mental anguish or some other tangible injury – in order to be awarded money damages.
Can Punitive Damages Be Awarded In A Defamation Case?
If I spread a false statement with actual knowledge that it was false, punitive damages can be awarded against me.
If you are ever involved in a situation that involves allegations of defamation, you should consult with a lawyer.
**This article is designed to provide helpful information that can be read within 2 minutes. It is neither a full explanation of this subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive legal advice on which you can rely, contact me or another lawyer.