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What Is the Difference between Libel and Slander?

Orange County civil litigationIf you own or operate a business, you will deal with complaints about the product or service you offer from time to time. It doesn’t matter how amazing your product is nor how excellent the service you offer may be. Complaints simply come with the territory. Sometimes, however, a complaint can rise to the level of defamation in the form of libel or slander. Because defamation is a frequently misunderstood area of the law, the Orange County civil litigation lawyers at Brown & Charbonneau explain the difference between libel and slander.

What Is Defamation?

Defamation falls under the area of the law known as “torts.” Tort law addresses injuries to your person or property. Specifically, defamation refers to a false statement presented as a fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person, business, or entity it is about. By way of illustration, imagine that you own a business (Hot Dogs R Us) selling hot dogs at sporting events. A statement made by a disgruntled customer that “Hot Dogs R Us sells uncooked hot dogs!” could be considered defamation. Not all complaints, however, rise to the level of legally actionable defamation. Sometimes a complaint is just that – a complaint. The broader category of defamation can be broken down into two sub-categories – libel and slander. To determine if a statement might form the basis of a lawsuit for defamation you must first understand what is required to prove libel or slander.

Was It Libel?

Libel is a defamatory statement made in writing. Traditionally, this referred to the printed medium; however, with the advent of the internet, libel can also refer to a statement made online. For example, if the disgruntled customer from our hotdog company were to get online and post the “Hot Dogs R Us sells uncooked hot dogs!” statement on Facebook, that could be libelous.

Was It Slander?

Slander refers to a defamatory statement that was spoken. For a statement to be considered slander, a third party must have heard the statement. For instance, if our unhappy hotdog customer walked away from the hot dog stand and yelled “Hot Dogs R Us sells uncooked hot dogs!” to a group of people waiting in line, it might be considered slander. As a general rule, slander is both more difficult to prove and considered the least harmful of the two types of defamation.

Was the Statement an Opinion or Fact?

One important consideration when evaluating a statement for the purpose of pursuing a defamation lawsuit is whether the statement was made as an opinion or a fact. Saying that you don’t like the way a hotdog vendor cooks their hotdogs is not defamatory because you are expressing your opinion about the way a product is made. Stating that the hotdogs are undercooked, implying a health code violation, is a statement of fact. Sometimes it is easy to tell the two apart; however, other times it is less clear whether a statement was opinion or fact.

Truth Is Always a Defense to Libel and Slander

For a statement to be considered libel or slander it must be untrue. Put another way, truth is always an absolute defense to a claim of libel or slander. In our hotdog example, if Hot Dogs R Us does actually undercook their hotdogs, then making a statement to that effect is not defamatory.

While this seems like a very straightforward aspect of a defamation lawsuit, it can be more complicated than it seems. Often, the intent of the person who made the statement must be evaluated. If the person about whom the statement was made is a public figure the speaker’s intent is analyzed differently than when the person is a private citizen. In the case of a public figure, for a statement to be libelous or slanderous, the person who made the statement must have known it was untrue or must have made the statement with reckless disregard for the truth of the statement. In the case of a private citizen, the statement must only have been made with negligence as to its truthfulness. The differing standards with regard to intent make it easier to prove libel or slander if the victim is a private citizen.

Did the Statement Damage Your Reputation?

If you are a business owner who is suing for libel or slander, you must also prove that the statement in question damaged your reputation or injured your business. For example, did your profits decrease significantly after the statement was made? If the statement did not result in any provable damages, you do not have a viable case for defamation.

Damages in a Libel or Slander Lawsuit

If you are successful in a lawsuit for libel or slander in California, you could be awarded the following types of compensation:

  • General damages – this includes damages for loss of reputation, shame, and hurt feelings.
  • Special damages – this refers to damages to your property, trade, profession or occupation.
  • Punitive damages – unlike general and special damages, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant. As such, punitive damages are generally only awarded when the defendant’s conduct was particularly egregious. Because punitive damages are intended to set an example, the amount of the award is up to the judge or jury.

Contact Orange County Litigation Lawyers

If you have additional questions or concerns about libel or slander in California, it is in your best interest to consult with the experienced Orange County litigation lawyers at Brown & Charbonneau as soon as possible. Contact the team today by calling 714-406-4397 to schedule your appointment.