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How to Sue for Slander

Although everyone can enjoy their First Amendment right to free speech, this right has certain exceptions. Because they cause personal injury, defamatory statements are among those exceptions.

Slander is one type of defamation of character claim that does not enjoy First Amendment protection. Courts recognize slander as a cause of action (claim) because it can cause reputational damage.

What Is Slander?

Slander occurs when someone makes false and damaging statements about another person. Unlike libel which is a written defamation claim, slander is spoken defamation. Public officials and public figures often bring slander cases.

How Do I Prove Slander?

In a slander lawsuit, you have to prove the following:

  1. The defendant spoke a false statement of fact
  2. The untrue statement does not fall into any privileged category
  3. The defendant acted negligently or intentionally in making the statement
  4. The statement harmed you

In some states, you must prove that the reputational harm to you resulted in actual damages. These can include lost income and expenses like medical bills for emotional distress.

In certain personal injury cases, a slanderous statement can amount to slander per se. Let's go back to the first element above. In a personal injury lawsuit, you can prove slander per se by showing that the slanderous statement (the first element) accuses you of:

  • committing a morally-objectionable crime, such as sexual misconduct
  • being infected with a contagious disease that would exclude you from society
  • being unfit to perform your office, profession, trade, or business

When a slander per se claim is successful, you can recover damages without having to prove your specific losses. The idea is that reputational harm relating to crimes, diseases, and business is so bad that damages can be presumed. You can also ask the court to award you punitive damages in all slander cases. These are damages intended to punish the defendant for egregious behavior. To get punitive damages, you must show the defendant has actual malice. This means the defendant either:

  • knows the statement is false or,
  • spoke it with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

Elements in Detail

To have a successful defamation lawsuit, you must show the defendant made a defamatory statement that harmed your reputation. Since slander is just a spoken form of defamation, let's look at all the elements of defamation in greater detail.

1. The Statement Needs To Be Defamatory

The restatement of torts defines a defamatory statement as:

  • communication that tends to harm the reputation of another,
  • to lower them in the estimation of the community,
  • or to deter third persons from associating with them.

Generally, if a statement attacks a person's reputation, then the statement might be slanderous. Courts will take a case-by-case approach to identify which statements qualify as defamatory and which ones just come off as non-defamatory opinions to the reasonable person.

2. The Statement Needs to Be Published

Here, a third party must have heard or seen the defamatory statement. Note that published doesn't mean the statement was published. It must be communicated to a third person. So a speech on social media or even a loud conversation is enough to qualify.

Courts will typically consider a statement "published" if another person has heard or seen the statement and understands its meaning.

3. The Statement Needs To Be False

The statement must be false. So, even if a statement hurts someone's reputation, it isn't slander if it is true. That's because truth is an absolute defense to any claim for defamation.

The statement should also be objectively false. This means someone's opinion, like "this is the worst real estate agent I have ever encountered," will not be considered defamatory since it's impossible to prove its falsity.

4. The Statement Needs To Be Harmful

If you are suing for slander, you must show that the spoken statement has harmed you somehow. Some examples of how you can do that include showing:

  • You lost your job because of the statement
  • Society is harassing you over the statement
  • You have lost your reputation in your community or with your friends and family

5. The Statement Needs To Target You

Here, the third party who heard the defaming statement needs to know that the statement was referring to the plaintiff. The court uses the reasonable person standard to identify whether a third party could reasonably believe the statement refers to the plaintiff.

6. The Statement Needs To Show Actual Malice (for Public Officials and Figures)

Because of the nature of their work, public officials and figures must also show malice to win a defamation case. Actual malice means the person making the statement knows the statement was false or did not care enough to check.

This additional requirement came after the 1964 landmark Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. SullivanThis case emphasized that the First Amendment's freedom of speech protects certain defamatory statements. The Court stated that mistakes could be made in public discussions, especially regarding public figures. So, these mistakes should be protected if they are "honestly made."

7. The Statement Does Not Fall Under 'Qualified Privilege.'

You must show the statement is unprivileged to bring a defamation action successfully. In some situations, even if you meet all the other elements will not be able to sue someone. Privileged statements may include:

  • Witnesses testifying in court
  • Lawmakers making statements during legislative debates
  • Statements made between spouses

How To File a Slander Lawsuit

Filing a slander lawsuit is like filing other personal injury lawsuits. Generally, you will take the following steps when you file a slander lawsuit:

  • File a complaint: This is the document that starts the lawsuit.
  • Serve the complaint: After you file the complaint, you need to serve the defendant following the service rules of your state.
  • Perform discovery: After service is complete, you and the defendant will send each other questions and exchange information. You will also be required to show documents that support your claim.
  • Attend settlement negotiations: This is the point where you decide whether to settle the case or go to trial. The legal advice of a defamation lawyer will be very useful. They are a type of personal injury attorney with ample experience in these issues.

How Much Does It Cost to Sue for Slander?

Your personal injury lawyer may charge you on an hourly or flat-fee basis. Some lawyers also charge on a contingency fee basis. All cases are unique, and the attorney's fees will vary based on your specific case and experience.

How Difficult Is It to Sue for Slander?

It depends on the facts of your case and the laws of your state. For example, some states have Anti-SLAPP (anti-strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws. These laws protect free speech and can cause your case to be dismissed if the slanderous statements were made in connection with a public issue.

Also, remember that, unlike libel, a written form of defamation, slander is spoken defamation, making it harder to prove. Also, you must also show the person defaming you was at least negligent with the truth or falsity of the statement. It is much harder for public officials and figures to sue for slander as they also need to prove actual malice and other elements.

More Resources

Thinking of Suing for Slander? Call a Lawyer

If you believe you have been a victim of slander, then you can file a defamation suit and get damages. But slander claims are complicated and very detailed. An experienced defamation attorney can help you with your legal issue and determine whether you can bring a defamation suit.

Remember that each state has its own time limit for filing a lawsuit, known as the statute of limitations. You can't file a lawsuit after the expiry of the statute of limitations.

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