Defamation of Character Lawsuits: Proving Actual Harm

A successful lawsuit for defamation of character might require a showing of real damage caused by the statement.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Defamation of character occurs when someone makes a false and harmful statement about you. "Libel" is a defamatory statement made in writing or posted online, while "slander" is spoken defamation. With either type, the statement must be published in some way (which just means some third party must have heard or read it), it must be false, and it must result in harm, usually to the subject's reputation. Those essential components of a defamation claim are fairly straightforward. But what kinds of harm can result from a defamatory statement, and can you recover compensation for those losses through a lawsuit?

Harm to Reputation

Perhaps the most common negative consequence of a defamatory statement is harm to your professional reputation. If you're a local businessperson and someone makes a false statement about you to others, indicating that you did something dishonest, that might cause your customers to take their business elsewhere. In another example, perhaps an untrue statement in a company email caused your employer to doubt whether you should remain employed.

Financial Harm

Of course, financial consequences often go hand-in-hand with harm to reputation. If you lose existing business, or lose your job, or can prove that you lost business opportunities or the chance at a promotion, you can seek compensation ("damages") for those types of financial harm as long as you can prove them with some degree of accuracy. Learn more about calculating damages in a defamation case.

When Harm Might Be Presumed

Some kinds of false statements are automatically presumed to be defamatory. The 2006 Duke lacrosse scandal provides an example. In that case, a woman accused several college athletes of sexually assaulting her at a party. It turned out that her account was not trustworthy. A false statement accusing another person of committing a crime, or of engaging in sexual misconduct, is usually considered "per se defamatory," meaning that it will be presumed to constitute defamation if, in fact, it was:

  • false, and
  • maliciously or recklessly made.

Other kinds of false allegations may also be presumed to be defamatory. But it's important to bear in mind that expressions of opinion about you, even if negative, are not usually defamatory. Likewise, if someone recounts a true but less-than-flattering incident involving you, that doesn't amount to libel or slander. Embarrassment is not defamation.

"Pain and Suffering" in Defamation Cases

In some situations, defamation can lead to mental and physical health problems including insomnia, depression, anxiety, and other negative effects. In some states, a defamation plaintiff might be able to recover compensation for these kinds of "pain and suffering" damages, depending on the nature of the defamatory statement, especially where economic harm is clear.

Methods of Proof

In many jurisdictions, if you can prove that someone made a false statement about you knowingly or recklessly, and published it to other parties, you have established a claim of defamation, and it will be presumed that you have suffered (at least nominal) harm. If, however, your jurisdiction does not follow that rule, or if you are a public figure or someone who is in the public eye, you might have to prove you were in fact harmed by the defamatory statement.

In order to establish that your reputation has suffered, in addition to your own testimony you may need to provide witnesses and documentary proof. To prove financial harm, you could testify about the impact of the defamation on your income and economic standing, but you may also need bank statements, bills, pay stubs, accounting statements, or tax returns to back up your claims.

To prove pain and suffering, you could testify about the effects the defamation has had on you. You might also provide witnesses (including a spouse, relatives, and/or close friends) to testify about their observations about you in connection with the incident. If you're making a claim for significant mental or physical harm, you may need a doctor or other health care provider to testify about your symptoms and medical treatment, including evidence that the issues you're currently experiencing were not pre-existing. You would also want to provide medical bills to show what the treatment cost you out of pocket. Learn more about evidence you'll need to bring a defamation lawsuit.

To understand the nuances of defamation law and how it applies to your situation, you may want to consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer. Learn more about how a lawyer handles a defamation case.