How can I prove malicious intent in a defamation case?


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Question:

How can I prove malicious intent in a defamation case?

Answer:

For starters, in the vast majority of defamation cases -- which are civil lawsuits seeking a remedy for harmful false statements -- the plaintiff does not need to prove actual malice, or prove any kind of specific intent on the part of the defendant, for that matter. An ordinary defamation plaintiff only needs to prove that a false statement was made, that the defendant is the one who made it, and that the statement ended up causing harm to the plaintiff's reputation or livelihood.

Actual malice only needs to be proven in a defamation case when the plaintiff is considered a “public figure” in the eyes of the law, or in certain cases where a privilege defense is raised. 

A public figure includes a politician (even a local one), a celebrity, a person in a high-profile job (like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company), or any other person in something of a public position. In these cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant knew the statement was false or spoke with a “reckless disregard for the truth,” depending on the definition in your state.

Malice may also need to be shown when the speaker of the allegedly defamatory statement raises a qualified privilege. Learn more about privilege defenses in defamation cases.

Proving that something is false (which all defamation plaintiffs need to do) is one thing. Proving actual malice is extremely difficult. That's why many libel cases brought by public figure plaintiffs end up failing at some stage of the court process, even when the public figure plaintiff has an experienced attorney arguing their case.

But remember, if you are not a public figure, you don't need to worry about proving malice. You only need to prove the basic requirements of defamation: that a false statement about you was made by the defendant, and that it ended up causing harm to your reputation and/or your livelihood.  

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