California Defamation: Laws & Legal Overview

California defamation law and lawyers
California Defamation Laws

Defining Defamation in California

California defines defamation as the communication of false information, which is meant to cause harm to a person or business, and exposes one to ridicule, hatred or contempt.

Difference Between Libel and Slander

Libel is written or published defamation; slander is transitory or spoken defamation.

Negligence Requirement

In California defamation lawsuits, the plaintiff must prove — at the very least — that the defendant acted with negligence when originating or repeating a disparaging communication.

Privileged vs. Unprivileged Statements Under California Defamation Law

In order for a statement to be considered defamatory, it must be unprivileged. Privileged statements  aren’t considered slanderous or libelous.

Under California law, privileged publications include:

  • General news reporting and investigations (with evidence of proper due diligence);
  • Certain materials subject to judicial review; and
  • Some reports related to a person acting in an official governmental capacity.

Defamation Per Se Under California Defamation Law

In most California slander and libel cases, plaintiffs must prove how the communications under review caused material harm — except in per se lawsuits.

A statement is considered defamatory per se if harm to the victim is inherent. The following are examples of per se defamatory accusations:

  • “John Doe is an insider trader.” (Insider trading is a crime. Calling someone a criminal is inherently damaging to one’s reputation. As such, this statement would be considered defamatory per se — if, of course, John Doe is not guilty of insider trading.)
  • “John Doe is impotent.” / “Jane Doe is a prostitute.” (Americans, generally speaking, don’t champion public nudity and sexuality — and our nation’s libel and slander laws reflect that norm. In states that recognize defamation per se accusations, acts of “moral turpitude” are often considered inherently defamatory.)
  • “John Doe has Ebola.” (In California, falsely asserting that a person has a fatal, contagious disease is defamatory per se.)

Private versus Public Figures

The distinction between a private and public figure is key under California defamation law.

Why Celebrities Usually Don’t Sue Tabloids for Defamation

According to California state law, Private Figures only need to prove negligence on the part of the defendant. Public Figures, on the other hand, must meet the actual malice standard; meaning they must prove the defendant knowingly lied and intended to cause harm.

The “public figure / actual malice” standard is why celebrities don’t bother to sue tabloids. Because the public figure or celebrity would have to prove the existence of actual malice on the part of the defendant, which is nearly impossible if the tabloid says they have ‘a source.’ Moreover, suing tabloids for defamation exposes celebrities to the discovery process, which many of them want to avoid.

In California, the media, however, is barred from making a private figure into a public figure simply by running a story about that person.

Defenses for Defamation in California

Like other states, California recognizes that truth is a valid defense against defamation of character charges.  Defendants can also win if the plaintiff doesn’t prove negligence on the part of the defendant, or if no harm befell the plaintiff as a result of the false statement of fact.

Qualified privilege is another California defamation defense option. This privilege is primarily used by the news media.

Opportunity to Retract

When a plaintiff in a defamation case issues a demand for retraction, the defendant has 20 days to comply. If the defendant chooses to comply and retract the defamatory statement as requested, this mitigates the amount of damages the plaintiff would be able to recover should the case still go on to trial. If the defendant refuses to comply with retraction notice by letting the requisite 20 days lapse, then the case can go to trial, and the plaintiff has the opportunity to collect unmitigated damages.

California Defamation Damages

California allows plaintiffs in defamation cases to recover the following types of damages:

  • actual damages
  • compensatory damages
  • punitive damages
  • emotional distress damages

Private figures can recover any of the types of damages listed. Public figures, however, must prove actual malice before recovering punitive and emotional distress damages.

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Thanks to a nationwide network of attorneys, Kelly / Warner can handle California defamation cases. Contact us.