Burden of Proof in a Defamation Lawsuit

A negative allegation can impact your reputation and cause a loss of money, employment, and opportunities. If the allegation is false, the law provides you with some protection by allowing you to file a defamation lawsuit and possibly win compensation for your losses. However, First Amendment rights must also be protected, so the burden of proof falls on you as the plaintiff. In order to prove your case, there are some basic requirements that must be met.

Statement Must Be Proven False

If a negative statement is made against you, you can only win a defamation suit if you are able to prove that the statement is false. If the allegation is true, the damages you incurred are irrelevant.

Additionally, opinions are not grounds for defamation lawsuits because they cannot be shown to be objectively true or untrue. For example, when film critics disparage an actor’s skills, the actor can’t sue for defamation because people have the right to express their opinions.

Damages Must Be Shown

In addition to proving that the allegation is false, you must also demonstrate that it damaged your reputation and resulted in a loss of some kind. Examples of injury can include being fired from your job, divorced by your spouse, shunned by the public, or harassed by the media.

Statement Cannot Be Privileged

Winning a defamation lawsuit is impossible if the defendant can prove that the statement in question is considered privileged. There are situations in which people need to be able to speak freely and without fear of retribution, and in those cases, anything they say is classified as privileged. Statements made by witnesses in a court case or by lawmakers within chambers are both covered by this stipulation.

Malice Must Be Proven in Some Cases

Government officials and influential public figures have an extra hurdle to jump in order to win a defamation lawsuit. They must prove malice by showing that a false statement was knowingly made with reckless disregard for the truth.

Plaintiff Must Be Alive

Even if all these threshold requirements are met, a defamation suit cannot be filed if the person being slandered or libeled is dead. Micheal Jackson and allegations made against him, both before he died and after, provide an example of this. As John Branca explains, when Jackson was still living, a man named Victor Gutierrez made allegations against him. Because Jackson was alive to defend himself, he was able to successfully file and win a defamation lawsuit against Gutierrez.

There are similar allegations against Jackson now, but since he’s dead, he can no longer sue. Since defamation suits are meant to protect someone’s reputation, they aren’t able to be used if the person is dead because there is no longer a reputation to protect.

Defamation laws are designed to protect you from false accusations that can damage your reputation. At the same time, though, the courts must also protect First Amendment rights. In order to strike the perfect balance between freedom of speech and freedom from damaging allegations, most states require plaintiffs to meet certain requirements. If you have suffered damages from a false allegation and can satisfy these conditions, a defamation lawsuit might be your solution.


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