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. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If someone is spreading lies about you, you might be able to file a civil lawsuit for defamation. Defamation happens when someone makes a false statement of fact about you that harms your reputation. Written defamation is called "libel." Spoken defamation is called "slander."

In this article, we'll walk you through the process of pursuing a defamation lawsuit and answer your questions about what exactly you'll have to prove, how long your lawsuit might take, and whether—and how much—you're likely to win.

Elements of a Defamation Lawsuit

Defamation laws vary slightly from state to state, but the general principles are the same no matter where you live.

A plaintiff suing for defamation typically must show that the defendant:

  • made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff
  • the statement was made to a third party (someone other than the plaintiff)
  • the statement harmed the plaintiff's reputation, and
  • the defendant was negligent (careless) about whether the statement was true or false.

Plaintiffs who are public figures—politicians, actors, professional athletes—must show more than negligence. Public figures must show that a defendant acted with malice, meaning the defendant made false statements about the plaintiff knowing they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Actual malice is harder to prove than negligence.

Learn more about how to prove defamation.

Talk to a Lawyer to Get Your Defamation Lawsuit Started

The best first step to getting a defamation lawsuit going is to hire a lawyer to discuss your legal options. If the defamatory statements were made online, make sure to bring screenshots to show your lawyer. If it was published in a newspaper or book, bring hard copies. If the defamatory statements were verbal only, bring a list of people who heard the defendant make the statements.

You can typically get compensation for actual harm in a defamation case. Show your attorney documentation of financial losses you suffered because you were defamed, including accounting or bank statements, pay stubs, income tax information, contract termination notices, or anything else that shows you have lost money or lost income opportunities. You'll need the right types of evidence to back up your defamation claim.

Be honest with your lawyer. Truth is an absolute defense to a defamation lawsuit. You don't want your attorney to learn that the allegedly false statements the defendant made about you are actually true for the first time in court. Better to share facts that might be harmful to your case in advance so that your lawyer can be prepared and give you meaningful advice.

Learn more about how a lawyer handles a defamation lawsuit.

Steps in a Defamation Lawsuit

The steps in a defamation lawsuit are the same steps plaintiffs and defendants have to navigate in other personal injury lawsuits.

File a Complaint

Once you've decided to pursue a defamation lawsuit, you or your attorney will file a complaint in your state's civil court system. A complaint is the document that gets the lawsuit started. Be sure to get your complaint filed within the time limit to file a defamation lawsuit in your state, called the "statute of limitations."

Get more details on starting a defamation lawsuit.

Service, Answer, and Discovery

After the complaint is filed, you'll have to serve the defendant with a copy following the service of process rules of your state. The defendant will have a brief window of time to file an answer to your complaint.

Next, the "discovery" phase begins. You and the defendant will exchange information about the case. For example, you might exchange written questions with the defendant called interrogatories. These questions are answered under oath, and they help both sides learn about the facts of the case and potential witnesses.

You might also exchange physical evidence related to the dispute, often documents. Your attorney will work with you to gather this evidence and answer questions. Your attorney can advise you about when you might be able to withhold documents or decline to answer questions.


A deposition is an interview of a party or witness under oath before trial. Depositions help attorneys figure out how a jury might perceive witnesses and evaluate the strengths of their claims and defenses.

Learn more about how depositions work.

Settling a Defamation Case

Discovery sets the stage for settlement talks. The more information both sides have about the case, the more likely they are to settle their defamation case.

There are many reasons why most personal injury cases settle before trial, including to:

  • save time and money
  • avoid the uncertainty of a trial
  • keep the case out of the public eye, and
  • reduce anxiety and stress.

If you can't reach a settlement, your case will either be dismissed or you'll go to trial. You can voluntarily dismiss your case at any time or a judge may grant the defendant's motion to dismiss.

Learn more about what happens at trial in a defamation case.

What Is the Average Defamation Settlement Amount?

No two defamation cases are exactly the same and each state has its own defamation laws, so it's impossible to say what an average defamation case is worth.

Defamation cases are often in the news. For a few months in 2022, it was impossible to ignore Johnny Depp's defamation trial against his ex-wife, Amber Heard. The trial ended with a $10.35 million verdict in Depp's favor. But most defamation cases don't end in multimillion-dollar awards. You may lose your case and get nothing. You may win your case and get nominal damages as low as $1, or you may end up with an outcome that satisfies your goals. The value of your defamation case will depend on your individual circumstances.

Learn more about damages in a defamation case.

How Long Will a Defamation Lawsuit Take?

Most defamation lawsuits take anywhere between a few months and a few years. Factors that influence the timeline of a defamation case include:

  • the state and county where you file your claim
  • the complexity of the factual and legal issues involved
  • the amount of money (damages) at stake
  • the financial circumstances of the parties, and
  • whether the case involves a public figure.

For a more in-depth discussion, check out: How Long Will My Defamation Claim Take?

Is It Hard to Win a Defamation Case?

Defamation claims are hard to prove and for good reason. Defamation laws have to strike a balance between society's interest in protecting free speech and your interest in defending your reputation.

Slander claims tend to be harder to prove than libel claims because you have to find witnesses who will testify about what they heard instead of simply having the defamatory statements preserved in writing.

Defamation claims against public figures are harder to prove than claims against private figures because public figures must show that they were defamed with actual malice. Why? Lawmakers and courts have decided that the public has a right to openly discuss and criticize the people who govern and influence them, as long as they aren't intentionally or recklessly spreading lies about those public figures.

Defendants can defeat a defamation claim by raising certain privileges and defenses. Most commonly defendants argue that the statements they made were true or that they were just stating an opinion and not a fact.

Next Steps

Defamation is a complicated area of law. A lawyer can help you sort out whether you've been the victim of libel or slander and whether it makes sense to file a lawsuit to clear your name and get compensation for your losses.

Perhaps more importantly, a lawyer can give you realistic and objective advice about how long your lawsuit will take, how much it's likely to cost you, and what you can expect to gain if you win.

Learn more about hiring a lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.