What are the consequences for being sued for committing defamation (slander & libel)?

Question

I'm embarrassed to admit that I recently got angry at my ex-husband and told several people, including his employer, that he was stealing at work. It wasn't true, but he still got fired. I called his boss and explained what had happened but his boss said there were too many complications to reverse the firing decision. Now, my ex-husband is suing me for defamation. What kind of liability will I face if I lose the case?

Answer

Let's start with explaining the difference between the two main varieties of defamation: libel and slander. Both involve harmful statements that damage someone's reputation, but libel requires that the statement be in writing or somehow published. With slander, all that's required is that the defamatory statement was spoken to another person. It sounds like the statements you made about your husband would be considered slander, not libel (since they were spoken, not published). Damages are usually different depending on whether the statement at issue is considered libel or slander. But in this case, there isn't much of a difference when it comes to your financial liability if your husband's lawsuit is successful.

Depending on your state's laws, your husband will probably not need to prove that what you said was harmful, since even when they're merely spoken (and not written or published), false statements that impugn someone's business or trade or accuse someone of committing a serious crime are usually considered "actionable per se," meaning harm is taken as a given in the eyes of the law. So, your husband would just need to show that you made the statements, and that the statements were false. (Learn more about proving harm in a defamation case.)

If your husband can prove those things, you may be held liable for any resulting actual damages -- money he lost as a result of losing his job, expenses incurred in looking for a new job, and damage to his earning capacity resulting from your statements. You may also have to compensate your husband for any embarrassment, mental anguish, humiliation, and damage to his reputation. Depending on the law in your state, punitive damages are also a possibility, especially if the court decides that you made the statements knowing that they were false and/or that you had malicious intent when you made them.

by: , J.D.

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