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Personal vs Business Defamation: Similarities and Differences in Lawsuits

  • Oct 01, 2021
  • The Harr Law Firm

One man whispering in another's earDefamation is one of a few exceptions to the First Amendment; freedom of speech does not apply if the statement is false and causes harm to another person or party. Both individuals and businesses can sue for damages resulting from defamatory statements, but what do these two types of cases have in common with each other, and how do they differ? Keep reading to find out.

The Basic Elements to Build a Case

In regards to the basic information necessary to build a defamation lawsuit, it doesn’t matter whether the plaintiff is a person or a corporation. You’ll still need these five elements in order to effectively pursue damages:

  1. False statement of fact – The first thing you’ll need to prove is that the defendant made a false statement of fact about you or your business. This means that the statement made can’t be expressed as an opinion, but stated as if it were factual. For example, “I really hated this soup,” is an opinion. “This soup has industrial cleaner in it” is a statement of fact, because it is not presented as an opinion. If the statement of fact is both false and about you or your company, then this first element is present.
  2. Publication – While the term “published” usually refers to putting something in print, when it comes to cases of defamation, “published” simply means the statement was made to the public at some point. This could be as simple as saying it to one other person or posting it online; it can also refer to more formal forms of publication, like printing it in a newspaper.
  3. Fault – This is one element that can vary slightly based on whether you’re filing a personal or business defamation lawsuit. (We’ll get into that more in a moment.) However, the most basic meaning here is that you must be able to show that the plaintiff knew the statement to be false or had reasonable reason to know it was false. A simple mistake of fact typically won’t qualify you for a strong defamation case.
  4. Lack of Privilege – There are a handful of contexts in which defamation cannot be pursued. The most common case that offers “privilege” again defamation charges is in a courtroom. If someone makes false statements against you or a business during legal proceedings, those cannot be used to pursue a defamation case later. Outside of these “privileged” situations, however, you can seek damages.
  5. Damage to Interests – Finally, you must be able to prove that the defamatory statement caused damage in some way to your or your business. Again, this can vary slightly between personal and business cases, but we’ll discuss those final details in a moment. But for the purposes of building any case, you’ll need to show that the statement can reasonably harm you in some way, whether economically, professionally, or personally.

No matter what type of case you’re building, each of these five elements must be present to have a strong defamation case. If any one of them is missing, the case is far less likely to succeed. Now, let’s discuss the differences often found between personal and business defamation lawsuits.

Differences in Establishing Fault

As we mentioned above, fault must be established in every defamation case; you must be able to show that the person knew the statement was false (or at least had no reason to believe it was true), and yet they “published” the statement anyways. In the example we mentioned regarding the soup, the person making that statement might not know the exact recipe you used, but they have no reasonable cause for believing that you actually put industrial cleaner in it.

In personal defamation cases, most plaintiffs will need to prove that the defendant was “reckless as to the truth of the statement.” Essentially, this means that they published the statement without regard to whether or not it was true, and without consideration for the harm that the statement might cause. Their exact intent in making the statement doesn’t matter.

For business cases, however, fault can be more difficult to prove. Most jurisdictions want a business to be able to prove that the person acted with malice; they wanted their false statement to cause harm to the company.

Differences in Establishing Damages

Another key difference between these case types is proving damage to your interests. For personal cases, it is typically sufficient if you can reasonably assume the statement would harm your reputation. For example, stating you have a criminal record could harm you both personally and professionally.

Business cases often require that you prove economic damage, or a reasonable assumption of economic damages. For example, you might not be able to prove exactly how many customers you lost to a false statement, but it is reasonable to assume that some people may have avoided your restaurant if the defendant stated you had rats in your kitchen.

If you or your business has been harmed by defamatory statements, contact The Harr Law Firm today to see how we can help you pursue compensation.