What is defamation?
At its most basic, defamation involves making a false statement about someone that damages that person’s reputation.
In more technical terms, a defamatory statement is one that “tends to bring” the target of the statement “into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule” or one that tends “to impeach” the target’s “honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.” This is taken from the Defamation Instructions in the Revised Arizona Jury Instructions (RAJI). These are the pattern instructions that may be given to juries during trials for defamation cases.
These instructions let us know that not all disparaging statements are defamatory.
First, defamatory statements must be false statements. “Truth is a complete defense to a defamation claim.” A statement will be considered true so long as it is “substantially true,” meaning, “the statement differs from the truth only in insignificant details” and the gist of the statement is true. Defamation 3, Truth.
Second, the statements at issue must be statements of fact. A factual statement is “one that can be proved true or false using objective criteria.” Defamation 4C (Fact Versus Opinion). But, simply saying, “In my opinion” or “I think” or “I believe” does not turn the statement into an opinion. “A statement phrased as an opinion may be considered a statement of fact if it states or implies that a fact is true.”
Third, defamatory statements are false statements that can do serious harm. They call into question a person’s reputation, professionalism, ethics, or honesty. They are false statements that subject a person to serious contempt, hatred, scorn, and ridicule.
It is always important to look at the full context of a statement to determine if it’s one that is, or could be, considered defamatory.
What needs to be proven to win a defamation claim?
In Arizona, to find in favor of the person bringing a defamation claim, a jury must find by a preponderance of the evidence:
the defendant (person sued) “made, said, or wrote a defamatory statement of fact about” the plaintiff (person suing)
"The statement was false”
The defendant made the statement in question to at least one other person
“The statement caused [the plaintiff] to be damaged.”
RAJI (Civil) Defamation 1A, 1B.
The jury must also address the standard of fault. There are two standards in defamation cases: negligence and actual malice. Which standard applies depends on whether the statement was about a private matter or was about a matter of public concern; and whether the plaintiff is considered a private person, or a public figure or public official.
In some private person, private matter cases, the jury usually must find (by a preponderance of the evidence) the defendant “was negligent in failing to determine the truth of the statement.”
In other defamation cases, however, the jury must find by a higher standard of evidence (clear and convincing evidence) that “[a]t the time the statement was made” the defendant “knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of whether the statement was true or false.”
What kinds of damages are available in a defamation case?
Arizona plaintiffs who win their defamation claims can be awarded money to compensate them for the harm they suffered as a result of the defamation. That can be harm to reputation (personally or professionally), economic losses (like lost profits), emotional distress and anxiety, future economic losses, and the expenses that come with trying to repair their reputation or otherwise lessen the harm caused.
In some cases, punitive damages may also be awarded. Punitive damages aren’t meant to compensate for a specific loss. They’re meant to punish extraordinarily bad actions and send a deterrent message to others. RAJI (Civil) Defamation 7-9.
No one can predict with any certainty whether a person will win or lose a defamation case. In general, though, a strong defamation claim is one that is based on credible, convincing evidence that can prove each of the elements of defamation. If you’re bringing a defamation claim or you’ve been sued for defamation, an experienced defamation attorney can assess the strengths and weakness of the defamation claim and help you understand your options.