DEFAMATION – (Libel & Slander)
Defamation of character is a catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone’s reputation. Written defamation is called “libel,” while spoken defamation is called “slander.” Defamation is not a crime, but it is a civil wrong. A defamed person can sue the person who did the defaming for damages.
Defamation law tries to balance competing interests: No one has the right to ruin others’ lives by telling lies about them and/or about their business. However, people should be able to speak freely without fear of litigation. Political and social disagreement is important in a free society, and we obviously don’t all share the same opinions or beliefs.
GEORGIA DEFAMATION DEFINITION
Georgia law defines defamation as an unprivileged, false and defamatory statement, concerning the plaintiff, where the defendant was, at least, negligent in making the statement, and caused harm to the plaintiff. (See Mathis v. Cannon as well as 92 OCGA§ 51-5-1.)
O.C.G.A.§ 51-5-1 states as follows:
(a) Libel is a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.
(b) Publication is necessary to recover damages for libel in Georgia.
Defamation Damages in Georgia
Special damages for defamation are available under Georgia law. Specifically, Georgia Code § 51-5-4 states:
- Slander or Oral defamation consists in: Imputing to another a crime punishable by law;
- Charging a person with having some contagious disorder or with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society;
- Making charges against another in reference to his trade, office, or profession, which is calculated to injure him therein;
- Uttering disparaging words productive of special damages which flows naturally therefrom.
- in the situation described in the preceding paragraph, special damage is essential to support an action, while damages are inferred for the rest of the above.
DAMAGES AWARDED FOR DEFAMATION IN GEORGIA
Among the damages for defamation in Georgia include:
- actual damages
- punitive damages
- other damages awarded by the court
Statute of Limitations for Defamation in Georgia
Plaintiff in Georgia defamation cases have one year, from the time the libelous or slanderous statements were made, to file a defamation lawsuit.
Public Figures and Private Figures
Public figures have to meet a higher proof standard in defamation lawsuits than private figures. Public figures must prove actual malice, whereas private people only have to prove negligence.
Under Georgia defamation law, famous people, government officials and political figures are considered public figures.
Single Instance Test Regarding Defamation against Businesses and Professionals
Statements that a business or professional was ignorant or made a mistake in a single instance, and not just general ignorance or lack of skill, is not actionable per se. This is because accusing some that they made a mistake or were unprofessional once, does not mean that they are generally unfit.
The Single Instance rule applies where a publication charges a professional or business with a single error in judgment. (Armstrong v. Simon & Schuster, 85 N.Y.2d 373, 379 (1995)). It does not mean that a defamation action will be precluded if the alleged single act shows a “complete lack of character or total disregard of ethics. (Mason v. Sullivan, 26 A.D.2d 115, 117, 271 N.Y.S.2d 314 (1966))
Defenses for Defamation
For cases of online defamation, the courts in Georgia recognize Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as a valid defense for websites and site operators who have not instructed a third party to post defamatory material.
Defendants can also claim that their written or broadcast statements are substantially true. Georgia also allows the fair reporting privilege and expressing opinion as a valid defense.
When the statement under review involves matters of public concern, the Plaintiff must show that the defendant:
- Published the statement about the plaintiff;
- That the statement was false;
- That the defendant was at fault for publishing the statement; and
- That the Plaintiff suffered actual injury from the statements.
Georgia is a Per Se State
Defamatory per se statements are inherently harmful, and as such plaintiffs in such cases don’t need to prove harm. Falsely accusing the plaintiff of sexual immorality, criminal behavior, or accusations of having a contagious disease, such as HIV/AIDS, are grounds for a defamation per se claim.
Can Opinions Be Defamatory?
Under Georgia law, opinions can be actionable defamation if the opinion can be reasonably interpreted, within the context of the entire writing, as a false statement of fact. In other words, if it’s not clear that a statement is an opinion, it could be considered defamatory under Georgia defamation law.
INJURY CAUSED BY A DEFAMATORY STATEMENT
The Statement must have directly caused harm or injury to the victim. Defamation can cause two main types of injury:
- Harm to reputation – the loss of a job, loss of customers, causing the victim to become a social outcast.
- Financial harm – the victim, whether personally or as a business owner, experiences loss of business or money, or incurs expenses in the attempt to repair his reputation.
Defamatory statements classified as libel or slander must be statements that are untrue, and the person making the statement must know that they are untrue. Derogatory or unflattering statements made that express the opinion of the person making the statements are subjective, and therefore are not considered defamatory. There is sometimes a fine line in determining this factor.
For example, Ngozi publishes on her Facebook page that Ebele is “an ugly person.” Ebele is offended, and feels that Ngozi has published defamatory statements about her for all their friends to see. However, because the statement reflected only Ngozi’s opinion, it would not be considered Libel.
Call the Okeke Law Firm, P.C. right away for professional help in defamation matters before the status of limitations run out.