The Demand Letter in a Defamation Case

Find out how to write an effective demand letter for a defamation (libel or slander) claim.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

In a defamation case, as with most personal injury (PI) claims, settlement negotiations usually start with a demand letter. In the simplest terms, a demand letter is a letter that explains why the party who injured you—we'll call them the defendant—should settle the case before trial.

In addition to encouraging settlement, a well-written demand letter lets the defendant know that you—and your case—should be taken seriously. The process of writing the letter also helps you gather, evaluate, and organize your evidence and prepare your case. (See what sample demand letters in other kinds of PI cases look like.)

We'll walk you through the basics of a defamation demand letter.

What Is Defamation?

Defamation—either libel or slander—is a false statement of fact about you that injures your reputation. Defamatory statements that are written or published online are called libel. When a false and harmful factual statement is spoken, it's known as slander.

The Basics of a Defamation Demand Letter

A basic defamation demand letter should include:

  • the facts
  • your injuries and damages
  • why the defendant is legally responsible for your injuries and damages, and
  • the amount of money you're demanding to settle your claims.

The Facts

Your factual discussion needs to cover the "four Ws" of your case: Who's involved, what happened, when it happened, and where it happened.

Who's Involved

This includes you (in a lawsuit, called the plaintiff) and each defendant—every person, company, or other entity you claim made one or more defamatory statements about you.

What Happened, and When and Where It Happened

Here you detail, usually in chronological order, the essential facts of your case. Your goal is to describe the facts proving the basic elements of a defamation claim. Those elements often vary a bit from one state to another, so be sure to check your state law. Typically, though, you'll need facts showing that:

  1. the defendant wrote or spoke, to someone other than you
  2. a false statement of fact about you,
  3. that injured your reputation.

If there was more than one defamatory statement, organize the facts chronologically for each statement.

Keep in mind that as a rule, opinions—no matter how nasty or unpleasant—aren't defamatory because they can't be proved true or false. In addition, remember that truth is usually a defense to a defamation claim. True factual statements, no matter how hurtful or embarrassing, aren't defamatory.

Your Injuries and Damages

Your injuries are likely to include the harm to your reputation caused by each defamatory statement, as well as any emotional distress brought on by that reputational injury. In most cases, you must show that the defamation caused you actual harm. But sometimes, a false statement is "defamatory per se," meaning so obviously harmful that injury is presumed.

"Damages" is a legal term that describes the money you're seeking to compensate you for your injuries. You'll want to ask for your actual damages, both economic and noneconomic.

In some states, you can collect presumed damages for statements that are per se defamatory. As the name suggests, these are damages the law presumes, usually when you can't prove the actual damages you suffered because of a false statement.

In a defamation case, economic damages (also called "special" damages) include the income or earnings you've lost (and that you expect to lose in the future) because of the harm to your reputation. Medical bills for treatments with physicians or therapists also count as economic damages, as do other out-of-pocket expenses you paid because of your injury.

Noneconomic damages (also called "general" damages) compensate you for injuries like emotional distress, pain and suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life. These damages are more difficult to quantify. Personal injury lawyers and insurance companies often calculate a value for noneconomic damages using a multiplier, multiplying your economic damages by a number between one and five.

In rare cases—those involving extreme or outrageous conduct—you can collect punitive damages. These damages aren't meant to compensate you for your losses. Instead, they punish the defendant and are supposed to deter others from acting similarly in the future.

Why the Defendant Is Legally Responsible

Having covered the essential elements of a defamation claim, now it's time to explain why the defendant is legally responsible for your injuries and damages. In a defamation case, this means showing that the defendant acted—made one or more defamatory statements—with the required state of mind.

For this task, defamation law divides the world of defamation plaintiffs into two groups:

  • public officials and public figures, and
  • everyone else.

Public Officials and Public Figures: The Actual Malice Standard

A public official (for example, an elected officeholder) or a public figure (say, a sports star or a famous actor, singer, or writer), must prove that the defendant made the false statement with "actual malice." A statement is made with actual malice when the defendant, at the time the statement was made, knew it was false or recklessly disregarded substantial reasons to doubt its truthfulness.

Actual malice is an exceptionally tough standard to satisfy, and deliberately so. It requires proof of the defendant's actual, subjective state of mind at the time a statement was made. The idea is simple: To make it difficult for wealthy and powerful people to chill speech with the threat of defamation liability.

Everyone Else: Negligence

Those who aren't public officials or public figures need only show that the defendant made a false statement negligently (carelessly). It's much easier to prove negligence than actual malice.

The Amount of Money You're Demanding to Settle

At this point, you've laid out the facts to prove the elements of defamation, detailed your injuries, computed your damages, and explained why the defendant is liable. The final step is to make a monetary settlement demand.

Your opening demand will typically be for the combined sum of your economic and noneconomic damages. Keep in mind that you're about to start a settlement negotiation. The basic rule is: Start higher than where you're willing to finish. Otherwise, you leave yourself no room to negotiate.

The defendant (or if the defendant is insured, the defendant's insurance company) will respond to your demand with an offer. You should expect the opening offer to be much lower than your demand—perhaps insultingly low. You'll counter that offer with a revised demand, one that's slightly lower than your first demand. The process continues this way, back and forth, until the case settles or you and the defendant agree that a settlement isn't possible at this point.

Closing Your Letter

Close your letter with (at least) these three points.

First, make it clear that your demand is an attempt to negotiate a settlement of your claims without the need for a trial. Because it's an effort to settle, nothing you say in your letter will be admissible into evidence should a trial be necessary.

Second, let the defendant (or the defendant's insurer) know that your demand will increase if the case goes to trial.

Finally, set a deadline for a response. In most cases, two weeks should be enough time to get back to you with an offer.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

You're not required to have a lawyer for your defamation case, but without experienced legal help, you'll be at a real disadvantage. Among many other things, a lawyer will help you to find, organize, and present the key evidence you need to show liability, injuries and damages, and the defendant's state of mind.

If you're ready to move forward with your defamation demand letter, here's how to find a lawyer who's right for you and your case.