During divorce or separation, tensions and emotions are often high, and it is not uncommon for one or both spouses to say negative things about the other. In many cases, hurtful or otherwise negative statements made during divorce are considered to be a normal part of the process. That being said, there is a limit to the madness; when statements cross a certain boundary and become defamatory, the victim may be able to sue for defamation.
What is Defamation?
In general, a defamatory statement is one that damages someone’s reputation and is false. But not just any lie will do. Defamation refers to an intentional lie that causes actual harm to another person. Although mean words can take a real toll on a person’s well-being, a bruised ego doesn’t constitute defamation. Losing your business because of your spouse’s lies, however, probably does.
Consider the following two scenarios:
- Brenda wants to get revenge on Bill for cheating on her and ending their marriage. She calls Cindy, his new girlfriend, and says that Bill has been calling every night to complain about how fat Cindy is getting. In fact, Bill has not been calling Brenda…the whole story is a lie.
- Lawrence is furious with Gloria for leaving him and wants to make her pay. He prints 500 fliers and distributes them throughout the town in which Gloria’s bakery is located. The fliers say to stay away from “The Cupcakerie” because it is infested with rats. There is absolutely no truth to the claim on Lawrence’s fliers.
In the first scenario, Brenda’s lie may hurt Cindy’s feelings and even cause conflict in the relationship between Cindy and Bill, but it is unlikely to result in the level of harm needed to constitute a lawsuit. Contentious divorces involving infidelity frequently lead to atypical behavior, especially from the person who was cheated on.
Scenario two, however, is another story entirely. When 500 fliers announcing a rat infestation in a bakery are spread throughout a town, the announcement (true or not) will likely have a negative impact on business. If Gloria can prove a drop in business following the distribution of the fliers—and that the statement was false—she may have a successful personal injury lawsuit against her soon-to-be-ex-spouse.
Slander vs. Libel
When a defamatory statement is spoken, it is called slander, and when it is written, it is called libel. Although the first scenario may not be defamatory from a legal perspective, it would fall under the category of slander if it did cross the line into defamation. The second statement, which was made in print, would be categorized as libel.
Interestingly, libel (written statement) is considered to cause injury whereas a slanderous (spoken) statement must be proven to cause injury. This is largely due to the fact that printed statements are permanent and can cause harm indefinitely, while an oral defamatory statement may be perceived as less damaging.
The Elements of a Successful Defamation Lawsuit
In order to win a lawsuit for defamation, regardless of who is it is against, you must be able to prove that certain elements existed. These include:
- The statement was untrue. You simply cannot sue someone for making a true statement about you, even if it harms your business or reputation.
- The statement was factual in nature. Opinions don’t count. For example, if in the scenario above, Lawrence’s fliers said to avoid “The Cupcakerie” because the owner is unfriendly, this statement is based on one person’s opinion. Although such a statement could still have negative implications on a business, it is unlikely to be considered defamatory.
- The statement actually harmed the person’s reputation. If Lawrence printed the fliers, but a rainstorm immediately destroyed the ink, rendering his message unseen, Gloria’s reputation would remain untarnished.
- The statement must be made public. Whether typed in an email, printed in a newspaper or left on someone’s voicemail, the statement has to be heard by a third party in order to constitute defamation.
Contact a Lawyer Today
If you have been harmed by the false statements of another, you may be able to obtain compensation for any damages suffered. Suing for defamation is a complex process that should not be attempted without the help of an attorney who is experienced in this specific area of law. If slanderous or libelous statements have caused you harm, contact a lawyer today.