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There are several components required to substantiate a defamation claim. False statements must be made by one person who intended to do harm to another and a third party must have encountered those statements. It is important to realize that winning a defamation suit is generally more difficult for a plaintiff than for a defendant. The plaintiff needs to prove that all of the elements of the offense existed. The defendant, on the other hand, can win by proving that a single element did not exist.
Defamation results when one person makes false statements about another person. These statements can be issued in numerous ways, such as by way of oral communication or by one person publishing information about another on the Internet. If you are a plaintiff, the first thing you will need to prove is that the person you are accusing actually made the statements. If you are a defendant, you may need to argue that you did not disseminate false information about the person accusing you.
Truth is a defense against defamation. This means that you cannot win a defamation suit for facts publicized about you, even if they are private or damaging. You will need, therefore, to show that the statements made about you are false.
As a defendant, there may be several ways to argue this point on your behalf. First, you can prove that although the plaintiff claims the statements made are false, they are actually true. Second, you can argue that you expressed matters of opinion and not matters of fact. The liberties provided by freedom of speech generally protect opinions from liability.
Malice is the intent to do harm. Proving what a person's intentions are is often difficult, but in a defamation suit, it is often necessary for the plaintiff. Offenses such as libel and slander are based on the premise that such information can be hurtful in numerous ways. If you are a plaintiff and you cannot show that the accused wished to hurt you in any way, then you are not likely to win. The defendant can also use the lack of malicious intent for a defensive argument.
Additionally, for a court to rule in favor of the plaintiff in a defamation suit, at least one third party needs to be involved. Even if malicious false statements are made about you, if they are never encountered by anyone except you, your character has not been defamed. For example, say you catch someone writing something bad about you on a bathroom wall and you immediately erase it, then the offense of defamation has not occurred. As a defendant, you can present the lack of evidence to show third party awareness as a challenge to the case.
Damages are another issue that can come up during a defamation law suit. Can the plaintiff prove that the defendant's false statements caused actual monetary or emotional damage? A judge may award punitive damages if the slander was aggregious, but the plaintiff may have to demonstrate real losses, too.
If an angry customer told people the owner of a restaurant spits in everyone's food, then the owner could sue for defamation. He would have to prove that a subsequent loss of business was due directly to the slanderous actions of that customer. People may have heard the accusations and chose not to believe them. However, if another customer testified that the defendant's accusations caused him to stop patronizing the restaurant, then there would be actual damages.
My wife works for a local newspaper, and I think at least one angry reader has threatened to sue the publisher for defamation every week. Only a handful have been successful, and those were settled out of court. Defamation lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win. Most of the time, there is at least a grain of truth to the allegations, and a quote is not the same as a statement of fact. A reporter can quote someone as saying "Joe Smith is the biggest liar in three counties, and he's as guilty of the crime as anyone can be."
The reporter himself didn't call Joe Smith a liar, and the newspaper clearly published it as a quote from a third party. If Joe Smith isn't happy with someone else calling him a liar in public, then that person could be sued for defamation, not the newspaper.
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