Filing a Civil Lawsuit for Defamation: What to Expect

Before you take legal action over libel or slander, get an idea of what the process might look like.

Updated By , J.D.

Defamation is a spoken or written false statement about you that results in some type of harm. Whether a statement is posted online or is made at a social gathering, it can still qualify as defamation ("libel" is written or posted defamation, while "slander" is defamation that's spoken). If you decide to pursue a civil lawsuit against the person who defamed you, what will the process be like?

(Get the basics on the legal elements of libel and slander.)

Meeting With a Defamation Lawyer

Your best first step might be discussing your situation (and your legal options) with an attorney. Bring a copy of the harmful statement (if written) to your first meeting. If the statement was made online, bring a printout of the page and any comments that refer to it. Make a list of people who might have information about the statement and its effects.

If you're claiming financial harm from the defamatory statement, bring any documentation, including accounting or bank statements, pay stubs, income tax information, contract/account termination notices, or anything else that shows you have lost money or lost an income opportunity. Make sure to bring any evidence that might be relevant to your case. Better to be over-prepared.

Finally, be honest. You need to be able to trust your attorney, and vice versa. That means sharing facts that might be harmful to your case. Better for your lawyer to know everything up front and get a handle on it than to be caught off guard later.Learn more about how a lawyer handles a defamation lawsuit.

Filing a Defamation Lawsuit

The Complaint Starts the Case. Once you've met with your attorney and he or she has done some initial investigation that indicates you have a viable case, a Complaint will be filed in your state's civil court system. This is the document that initiates the lawsuit. At this stage, a key consideration is the defamation statute of limitations in your state, a law that sets a time limit on your right to take your case to court.

Keep in mind that starting the lawsuit doesn't mean resolution will come in a few weeks or months. It often takes more than a year for a defamation case to make its way to the trial stage, and meanwhile settlement negotiations can be ongoing as the litigation plays out. Get more details on starting a defamation lawsuit.

Service, Answer, and Discovery. After the Complaint is filed, the defendant is served with the lawsuit documents (Summons and Complaint) and has a brief window of time in which to file a response (the Answer). More: Defending against a defamation lawsuit.

Next, the court issues a scheduling order, which gives all the important deadlines in a case. At that point, the "discovery" phase begins. Each party will send the other (through attorneys) written questions called Interrogatories. These questions are answered under oath, and they help the opposing party find out more about you, your potential witnesses, and the facts of your case.

The other party will likely also ask you to produce certain documents. Your attorney will work with you to gather documents and answer questions. Sometimes there are reasons that you can withhold documents or decline to answer questions, and your attorney can advise you about that.

Depositions. A deposition is an interview under oath during which the attorney for the other party asks you questions. This is an opportunity to size you up and determine what kind of witness you'll make at trial, how a jury might perceive you, and how strong your claims are. Your lawyer will help you prepare. Sometimes other witnesses may be questioned as well, such as doctors, friends or relatives who have knowledge about your case. Learn more about how depositions work.

Settling a Defamation Case

Once the discovery process is over, settlement negotiations typically begin in earnest, now that both sides have much of the preliminary information they need.

Whether to settle a defamation case out of court or go to trial is ultimately up to the client, but an attorney's advice can be crucial. For a variety of reasons, attorneys may advise settling even strong cases, depending on the situation. You may have a great deal of anxiety about trial, or there may be information you do not want made public. It's also possible for a jury to find in your favor and still not award you much in the way of damages, especially in a case where quantifiable losses can be difficult to establish. Learn more about figuring out how much your defamation case might be worth.

Many people are impatient and risk-averse, and would rather have something guaranteed now than face the risk of getting nothing at all in the future. These are all things to consider when you think about settlement.

Most defamation lawsuits (like most injury-related lawsuits in general) reach a settlement, but if the two sides are too far apart to reach an agreement, the case may make it all the way to trial. Learn more about what happens at trial in a defamation case.