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By Ted J. Schneider, Esq.

Assuming you are, in fact, not a drug dealer, you may be able to successfully bring a civil lawsuit for defamation. Defamatory statements are those untruths which harm your reputation. While defaming another person is not a crime, it is a civil tort and the victim can seek redress in the courts for damages incurred.

Defamatory statements can be spoken, gestured, written or pictured. Written defamation is referred to as “libel” and spoken defamation is known as “slander.” Oral defamatory statements generally have a shorter lifespan than those fixed in a written form; therefore, most courts deem libel to be more injurious than slander. In order to prevail in a civil lawsuit for defamation, you must prove to the court that the defamatory statement made against you was:

  • False; and
  • Published; and
  • Caused injury; and
  • Was not privileged

First and foremost, the statement must be false. If you happen to occasionally dabble in the drug trade, such an accusation against you would be true and, therefore, would defeat your claim for damages. A truthful statement, no matter how harmful to your reputation, is not considered damaging in the civil liability sense. Similarly, opinions are not considered defamatory because it is impossible to present evidence that objectively proves that the statement is false.

You must also prove to the court that the statement was published, or somehow communicated to a third party. Publication does not mean it must be published in print or on the internet; this requirement is met whether the statement was communicated over the media, through gossip, overheard in conversation, or via flyers and signs. The only requirement is that the statement is communicated to a party other than yourself or the person making the statement.

Because the primary purpose behind defamation law is to compensate a victim for damage to his or her reputation, in order to prevail in a defamation lawsuit you must be able to prove that you were injured by the defamatory statement. Damages may include being shunned by business associates or neighbors, lost income opportunities, or even being hounded by the media. Some types of false statements are considered defamation “per se” and do not require the victim to prove injury, including allegations that you have committed a crime, have an infectious disease, are guilty of sexual misconduct, or are professionally incompetent. Accordingly, an untrue statement that you are dealing drugs – an allegation that you are engaged in criminal activity – would fall under defamation “per se,” easing your burden of proof.

Finally, the statement must not be privileged. In certain instances, statements made are privileged and the person who made the statement cannot be sued for defamation even if the statement turns out to be false. For example, those testifying in court or at a deposition cannot be sued if their testimony turns out to be untrue.

In HOAs it is not uncommon for gossip to be spread about one of the residents. This is often a by-product of living in a closed community. Be careful not to spread a rumor. By doing so the information is now “republished” and, if false, exposes each person who spreads the rumor to a possible defamation claim. 

There’s an added wrinkle for public figures who face a higher burden of proof. Elected officials, celebrities and other public figures must also show that the false statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning the person who made the statement either knew it was false or acted with reckless disregard for whether the statement was false.

About the Author
Theodore J. Schneider practices in the areas of business and corporate transactions, employment law counseling, municipal and public law, real estate and land use, and homeowner associations. Ted began his legal career in 2002 when he joined the Los Angeles office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, L.L.P. before relocating to Ventura County to join his father in practice.