two coworkers speaking badly about a third coworker in an office

What is Defamation?

If you use any social media platform or watch any news show, you have probably heard about a famous Hollywood defamation lawsuit, Depp vs. Heard. Where actor Johnny Depp is suing his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, over an op-ed she published in The Washington Post in 2018, seeking $50 million in damages. There are videos and articles breaking down every twist and turn of the trial, but they do not entirely explain what a defamation lawsuit is, or what it involves. Today, I took the opportunity to explain defamation in detail in this post.

Can Words Really Be Harmful?

You have likely heard the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The reality, however, is that words can cause serious harm to a person’s mental health, livelihood, and on extreme cases, their physical wellbeing. Defamation laws exist to protect your reputation and your dignity from injuries caused by untrue communications shared about you. If someone defames you, you can bring a defamation lawsuit to obtain compensation for damages and losses.

Defining Defamation

Defamation refers to a false communication that is harmful to your reputation. A defamatory statement is one that causes people who read or hear the defamatory words, or who see a defamatory image, to think less of you. The statement can be about you, your business, or a group or organization that you are part of.

Types of Defamation

Libel and slander are the two types of defamation in BC law:

  • Libel is defamation that leaves a permanent record, such as a written statement about you in an email, newspaper article, or on a website. Libel also includes statements in a TV or radio broadcast, as well as statements published on online platforms (e.g., blogs, message boards, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter).
  • Slander is defamation that does not leave a permanent record, such as a statement spoken out loud or a hand gesture.

Slander is transient and more difficult to prove. You must prove actual damages if you sue for slander (see below for more on compensation in a defamation lawsuit).

When Can You Sue For Defamation?

You can sue for defamation if you can prove all three of these essential elements:

  1. The communication referred to you.
  2. The communication was published to a third party.
  3. The communication is defamatory, in the sense that it tends to lower your reputation in the community in the eyes of a reasonable person.

The second element is important to emphasize. A statement cannot injure your reputation if it is only communicated to you. It must be published or communicated to a third party (in other words, to at least one other person) to form the basis of a defamation lawsuit.

What Compensation Can You Receive In A Defamation Lawsuit?

In a libel lawsuit, once you prove the three essential elements, the law presumes that the statement is false and that you suffered damage to your reputation. In a slander lawsuit, the general rule is that damages are not presumed; you must prove the three essential elements, and you must prove that you suffered actual financial loss.

Assuming the defendant in your defamation lawsuit is not able to prove one of the available defences (for example, that the statement was true; fair comment/statement of opinion; qualified privilege), you are entitled to general damages for loss of reputation. You may also be entitled to damages for actual losses, such as lost earnings or special damages, if you can establish that those losses were caused by the defamatory statement. You may also be entitled to aggravated or punitive damages if the defamatory statement was made with malice.

General damages in a defamation lawsuit are intended to console you for the distress caused and to repair your reputation, insomuch as money can. The assessment of general damages depends on factors such as your standing in the community, the seriousness of the defamation, and how/to whom it was published. Extent of publication is of particular importance in assessing damages in “cyber-libel” (internet defamation) lawsuits. Awards can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars or more.

Defamation Lawsuits in British Columbia

In BC, you must bring a defamation lawsuit in the BC Supreme Court within two years of the defamation, and the limitation period begins to run when the defamatory statement is made or published.

Do You Think You Have Been A Victim Of Defamation?

If you would like to discuss whether you have a defamation claim and are unsure about how to proceed, reach out to our legal team for trusted, practical and legal advice. Request a free consultation by filling out our online consultation form or calling us at 604-243-5825.

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