Defamation Lawsuits Are Alive and Well in California

California society provides plenty of fodder for gossip, and unflattering gossip often enough ends up the subject of a defamation lawsuit. Libel and slander suits also may be brought in other contexts – politics, business and employment for example – when people contend that unflattering falsehoods have been said or written about them personally, or in their public or business lives.

A quick perusal of recent California news illustrates:

  • In July 2011, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former private flight attendant brought a $40 million defamation lawsuit against news sources for saying that her son was fathered by Schwarzenegger.
  • In August 2011, Riverside County issued a public admission in settlement of a defamation action brought by the Vagos Motorcycle Club in which bikers objected to county prosecutor comments that the club members were violent and participated in attacks against police.
  • In July 2011, actor Ryan Neal filed a million-dollar-plus defamation suit against an associate of Neal’s deceased partner, actress Farrah Fawcett, in which Neal claimed the associate’s assertions that Neal had stolen an Andy Warhol portrait of Fawcett were false.
  • In July 2011, Sutter Health and labor union Unite Here settled – for $6 million and a public statement – a defamation suit wherein Sutter objected to a large union mailing that alleged the health care company used dirty sheets in its birthing centers.

Defamation is governed by state law, and California’s defamation law is similar to that of most other states. Most people know generally that to defame someone is to express an untrue statement that harms his or her reputation. Slander is an oral defamatory statement; libel is a written one.

While some of the details of libel and slander differ, and defamation law contains some detailed requirements and exceptions, in broad terms, in California for a statement to be legally defamatory, the speaker or writer must intentionally publish (share) a falsity about another person that harms the subject person’s reputation. The speaker must be at fault, meaning at least negligent about finding out whether the statement is true or not.

The statement does not have to be malicious for it to be defamatory, but if the plaintiff can show it was made with malice, he or she may be able to get punitive damages (money award to punish the defamer). Without malice, recoverable damages are normally compensatory – money to compensate for the types of harm the plaintiff naturally experienced as an outgrowth of the defamatory statement.

Some of the legal standards vary depending on whether the person allegedly defamed is a private person or a public figure.

Finally, the statement must not be legally privileged. In some contexts, speech is protected even if it turns out to be false and hurt someone’s reputation. For example, usually protected are statements of public officials in the discharge of official duties, and statements made in or about public proceedings. Sometimes a privilege may be overcome if the plaintiff can show the statement was made maliciously.

Defamation lawsuits can be brought by individual persons, or in a business dispute, where a statement injures a firm’s business reputation.

Defamation law is complex. If you believe your reputation or that of your business has been harmed by a false statement, seek legal advice from an experienced defamation lawyer immediately to help preserve your legal rights and explore your options for redressing the wrong.