Defamation of character is defined by California law as the dissemination of a false statement to a third party that causes harm to another person’s reputation and good standing. The core of suing for legitimate defamation of character action in California is based on whether the published comment caused harm to another’s reputation.
If you’re considering filing a defamation lawsuit in California, it’s critical to know and follow the statute of limitations for these types of cases.
We’ll go over the definitions of libel, slander, and defamation in California in this guide on defamation law. We’ll also go through how to prove the components of defamation in California, using real-life examples.
Suing for Defamation of Character in California: What Does California Law Say About Defamation With Examples?
The California Court of Appeals defined defamation in Mattel, Inc. v. Luce as a statement
“that exposes any person to hatred, scorn, ridicule, or obloquy, or causes him to be shunned or avoided, or has a tendency to hurt him in his employment.” No. B143260, 2001 WL 1589175, 1 at *8 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2001), as amended (Jan. 8, 2002) (citing Cal. Civ. Code 45).
A perfect example was the Del Junco v. Hufnagel case. Del Junco v. Hufnagel is a California case that displays this defamation standard in action. The defendant fraudulently claimed in Del Junco that the plaintiff lacked the necessary medical training to perform surgery. This, according to the California court, was sufficient to constitute not only defamation of character lawsuit but suing for defamation per se.
What Does California Law Consider to Be Defamation Per Se With Examples?
Defamation per se (also known as libel per se or slander per se) happens when a remark is so harmful to one’s reputation that the plaintiff does not need to show that they experienced actual damages as a result of it.
Statements that “tend to expose the plaintiff to public hostility, scorn, ridicule, aversion, or dishonor, and to induce an evil judgment of him/her in the minds of right-thinking individuals, depriving him/her of friendly intercourse or society” may be grounds for suing of character defamation per se in California.
Only four categories of remarks are commonly considered defamatory in most states. Nonetheless, California deems nine types of remarks to be so intrinsically defamatory.
California has declared the following comments to be defamatory by definition. They include statements:
- Accusing a plaintiff of committing a crime (or having been indicted, convicted, or punished for a crime).
- “Communist” statements made by a litigant.
- Suggesting a plaintiff has a contagious, infectious, or dreadful sickness.
- That incite public hostility, scorn, or contempt for a person.
- Accusations that a plaintiff is powerless or unchaste.
- Defamatory statements made at a plaintiff’s office, profession, trade, or company.
- Accusing a plaintiff of betraying the trust that has been placed in him.
- That drive others to avoid or shun a person.
- Accusing a plaintiff of betraying his colleagues.
California has a long history of defamation trials, which provide instructive examples of many types of defamation. For example, in Albertini v. Schaefer, a comment that an attorney is “a crook” was ruled to be defamatory per se since it hurt the plaintiff in the course of their profession.
What Does California Law Say About Defamation Per Quod With Examples
Unlike defamation per se, defamation per quod requires plaintiffs to show that they suffered damages as a result of the allegedly defamatory comment. This is usually demonstrated by presenting extrinsic evidence. Simply put,
“the statement’s hurtful character or effect [must] be shown by…proof.” Friedman v. Slaughter, 32 Cal. 3d 149, 154 (Cal. 1982).
The alleged slander in Slaughter, for example, did not fall under any of California’s nine “categories” of defamation per se. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant’s claims that the dental work he did was “unnecessary” and that he was “overcharging” damaged him. Although the statements were about Slaughter’s occupation, they did not constitute defamation.
However, because Slaughter also stated damages and financial losses as a result of the defendant’s defamatory comment, the court resolved that he effectively pleaded defamation per quod. Friedman’s words harmed Slaughter’s “economic interactions with his patients,” as numerous patients refused to pay for their treatments as a result of the defamation.
Suing for Defamation of Character in California: Is Defamation in California Illegal?
Criminal defamation statutes exist in 23 states and two territories in the United States. As a result, several forms of defamation may result in criminal fines or penalties, even imprisonment.
However, California is not one of the states in the United States that has criminal defamation legislation. While defamation defendants in California are not subject to possible jail, they may face civil lawsuits and significant damages (including punitive damages), depending on the nature and extent of their false comments.
Elements of a Defamation Case in California
A plaintiff must prove the following four factors to successfully allege a defamation claim in California:
#1. A Factual Misrepresentation
Simply put, a defamation plaintiff must demonstrate that the statement made or published about them was false. A defamatory remark cannot be an opinion, an oversimplification, or a statement that is substantially true (commonly referred to as the substantial truth doctrine). Remember that proving slander requires falsity.
#2. Published Without Privilege
Other than the plaintiff and defendant, the statement must have been verbally transmitted or published in writing to at least 1 third party. The statement is also not covered by privilege (a person’s legal right to do or say anything), such as a statement made during judicial or parliamentary proceedings.
#3. With at Least Negligence
The defendant must have either knowingly misled or acted negligently in determining whether their statement was truthful or untrue when making the defamatory statement.
#4. The Statement Was Either Defamatory Per Se or Caused Special Damages
The plaintiff must demonstrate that the false statement was inherently defamatory, falling into one of California’s nine forms of defamation per se, or that they suffered reputational harm as a result of the statement.
How Can You Ensure That Your Defamation Case Has All of the Necessary Elements to Pass Muster in California Courts?
Write down each of the four elements of a California defamation claim before filing a defamation case with the appropriate court. Then, make a list of how you’ll prove each point.
For example, if a defamer claims that you lack the necessary education to perform your job, you may be able to prove your qualifications. This will aid you in proving the defendant’s assertion is false.
The Standard Deadline for Filing a Defamation Lawsuit in California Is One Year
According to the California Code of Civil Procedure section 340, you have one year to launch a defamation claim. And the “clock” starts ticking when the defamatory statement is made for the first time. The one-year clock does not reset if the comment is later repeated or republished, and the plaintiff is not entitled to file another case.
For the purposes of the statute of limitations and asking a court for defamation damages, the date on which the defamatory remark was first spoken or first published is what matters. The Uniform Single Publication Act of California lays out this “once only” regulation (California Civil Code section 3425.1 et al).
Extending the Statute of Limitations for Defamation Lawsuits in California
The Civil Code of California outlines a number of events that could serve to delay (or pause) the start of the statute of limitations “clock” for potential suing for defamation of character claims in California, thus prolonging the one-year filing deadline imposed by Civil Code section 340(c).
Here are a few scenarios in which the typical one-year schedule is likely to be altered:
- The allegedly defamed individual (the plaintiff initiating the action) was unaware of any information that would have led a reasonable person to believe that he or she had been hurt by a defamatory statement (this is known as the “delayed discovery” rule).
- The plaintiff was under the age of 18 or “lacks legal capacity to make decisions” (i.e., suffering from a temporary or permanent mental illness) at the time of the allegedly defamatory statement (California Code of Civil Procedure section 352)
- If the person who allegedly made the defamatory statement (the defendant) left the state of California after making it and before the lawsuit could be filed (California Code of Civil Procedure section 351).
What Happens If You Miss the Deadline for Filing?
If you try to file a defamation lawsuit in California’s courts after more than a year has passed since the defamatory statement was first made and no exception applies to extend the statute of limitations deadline, the court will almost certainly dismiss your case. If that happens, you will lose your right to seek legal redress for the defamation in any court, regardless of how much harm it has caused you.
It’s worth noting that the one-year statute of limitations in California isn’t simply a consideration if you’ve decided to take your defamation case to court. This is also important if you’re trying to reach an out-of-court settlement with the person who made or published the statement. You’ll have lost all leverage if the statute of limitations date has passed and the other side realizes that launching a lawsuit is now a procedural impossibility.
However, if you have doubts about how California’s statute of limitations applies to your prospective defamation action, it’s time to speak with an experienced California attorney, especially if the one-year deadline has past or is approaching.
Suing for Defamation of Character in California: Defamation Defenses in California
It is essential to understand the potential defenses to defamation claims a defendant may have before launching a defamation lawsuit in California. Before bringing your lawsuit, familiarize yourself with potential defenses to strengthen your claim and boost your chances of victory in the long run.
In California, the following are the most prevalent defamation defenses:
Truth, opinion, consent, privilege, statute of limitations, and statutory defamation defenses
#1. Truth as a Defamation Defense
If a statement cannot be shown to be factual or incorrect, it may be considered an opinion, which is a frequent defamation defense.
#2. Opinion as a Defense
Keep in mind that if the facts are inaccurate, remarks including both fact and opinion may be considered defamatory.
#3. Consent as a Defense
If the plaintiff agreed to the publication of the remark in question, a defamation claim is unlikely to prevail. Express, informed, inferred, and unanimous consent are all common forms of consent.
#4. Privilege as a Defense
Some statements are regarded as privileged, allowing the defendant to use this as a defense. There are four forms of privilege recognized in California:
Absolute, Qualified, Fair, and Neutral report.