If you’ve ever sat on a board of directors, you know. You know that BOD meetings can quickly turn into a verbal UFC match — which is why they’re a regular source of slander and libel lawsuits.
But here’s the legal rub: in many situations, board of director showdowns are protected from the go-go-Gadget arm of U.S. defamation law – thanks to a legal concept known as privilege.
Privilege Affects Many Defamation Lawsuits, Especially Ones Born From Board of Directors Meetings
What’s privilege, legally speaking? No, it doesn’t mean “legal advantage, rich folks” (though, many people would disagree). In legal terms, “privilege” describes a protected relationship. Doctors and patients, attorneys and clients, spouses – they all enjoy a certain amount of “privilege,” meaning that particular aspects of their conversations, between each other, are not subject to defamation law. Same goes for certain board of directors meetings.
Why are some BOD gatherings legally protected, verbal free-for-alls, operating outside of slander and libel laws? Because organizations, businesses and groups need to be able to discuss suspicions, rumors and other unpleasantries. Doing so is part of how healthy establishments maintain good public reputations and keep their respective management engines chugging along.
Which is why a recently filed board of directors defamation lawsuit out of Idaho may prove fruitless.
The Incident: Accusations Fly at a BOD Meeting
Here’s what happened:
- A sport’s club, with volunteer participants, had two heated board of directors’ meetings.
- At the first, one of the members accused another member of filching funds.
- At the second, the accused demanded an apology – which never came.
- Ultimately, records proved the accusation inaccurate.
- The accused party filed a defamation lawsuit against its accuser.
What Plaintiffs Must Prove To Win A Defamation Lawsuit
To win a slander or libel lawsuit, plaintiffs typically have to prove a lot more than a simple untruth. At the very least, claimants must convince a judge or jury that the defendant:
- Made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff;
- Acted negligently, recklessly or with actual malice; and
- Caused harm – material or reputational – via the contested statement.
Applying the Standards to this Board of Directors Defamation Case
If reports are accurate – and there aren’t any unknown extenuating circumstances – the plaintiff may win this board of directors’ defamation case. Publicly and falsely calling someone a thief is inherently harmful to a reputation. It’s considered “defamation per se” in some jurisdictions. And in per se cases, the plaintiff usually doesn’t have to prove harm.
BUT! Privilege May Save the BOD
As stated, legally speaking, privileged statements are “protected” statements. Speech that falls under the “privilege umbrella” may not be defamatory – even if inaccurate. Absolutely privileged statements are sometimes 100% immune from legal action. When language is labeled as “qualified privilege,” to win, the plaintiff must meet a higher standard of proof.
In this case, the board of directors’ meeting may be considered a “privileged meeting.” If it is, the plaintiff may not be able to win any damages.
A Common Misconception about Defamation
Over the past decade, the word “slander” has assumed a colloquial meaning, in addition to the legal one. It’s common for people to say a negative comment is “slanderous.” But as discussed above, actual slander involves a whole lot more than a negative opinion.
Contact a Defamation Attorney
Free speech is a cornerstone of American life. However, you can’t maliciously lie about another party. Doing so is defamatory, and legal remedies are available to people on the receiving end.
Kelly / Warner works with individuals and businesses that have been illegally disparaged. Our attorneys handle all manners of slander and libel lawsuits – both online and off, personal and business-related.
We’re a full-service, boutique practice that offers better-than-big-firm results for a fraction of the price. Not to brag, but our success record is something of which we’re exceptionally proud.
More encouraging, rectifying a board of directors’ defamation issue doesn’t always involve a lawsuit.