Georgia Defamation Legal Overview

Georgia defamation law and lawyer
Georgia Slander and Libel Laws

Georgia Defamation Definition

Georgia law defines defamation as an unprivileged, false and defamatory statement, concerning the plaintiff, where the defendant was, at least, negligent in making the statement, and caused harm to the plaintiff.  (See Mathis v. Cannon as well as 92 OCGA§ 51-5-1.)

Georgia Code § 51-5-1 states:

(a) Libel is a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.

(b) Publication is necessary to  recover damages for libel in Georgia.

Under Georgia defamation law, statements about the public, in general, are not actionable. Moreover, it is the responsibility of slander and libel plaintiffs to prove that the statements under review are about them.

Under Georgia law, a “private person” can sue another person without having to prove actual malice. Private persons only need to demonstrate that the defendant was negligent when communicating the defamatory statement to a third party.

Defamation Damages in Georgia

Special damages for defamation are available under Georgia law.  Specifically, Georgia Code § 51-5-4 states:

  • Slander or Oral defamation consists in:
    • Imputing to another a crime punishable by law;
    • Charging a person with having some contagious disorder or with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society;
    • Making charges against another in reference to his trade, office, or profession, which is calculated to injure him therein;
    • Uttering disparaging words productive of special damages which flows naturally therefrom.
  • in the situation described in the preceding paragraph, special damage is essential to support an action, while damages are inferred for the rest of the above.

Statute of Limitations for Defamation in Georgia

Plaintiff in Georgia defamation cases have one year, from the time the libelous or slanderous statements were made, to file a defamation lawsuit.

Public Figures and Private Figures Are Beholden To Different Slander and Libel Proof Standards

Public figures have to meet a higher proof standard in defamation lawsuits than private figures. Public figures must prove actual malice, whereas private people only have to prove negligence.

Under Georgia defamation law, famous people, government officials and political figures are considered public figures.

Limited Purpose Public Figure

Like other states, Georgia recognizes that there are times when a private person becomes a “famous person” for a brief time. Call it the ole’ 15-minutes of fame clause.

To address the phenomena, Georgia courts apply a three-part test when assessing whether or not a person is a “limited purpose public figure.” The court must:

  • Isolate and identify the specific controversy in which the plaintiff is involved;
  • Ascertain the plaintiff’s level of involvement associated with the controversy; and
  • Determine the relevancy of the defamatory content to the plaintiff’s involvement with the public controversy.

Single Instance Test Regarding Defamation against Businesses and Professionals

Statements that a business or professional was ignorant or made a mistake in a single instance, and not just general ignorance or lack of skill, is not actionable per se.  This is because accusing some that they made a mistake or were unprofessional once, does not mean that they are generally unfit.

The Single Instance rule applies where a publication charges a professional or business with a single error in judgment. (Armstrong v. Simon & Schuster, 85 N.Y.2d 373, 379 (1995)).  It does not mean that a defamation action will be precluded if the alleged single act shows a “complete lack of character or total disregard of ethics.  (Mason v. Sullivan, 26 A.D.2d 115, 117, 271 N.Y.S.2d 314 (1966))

Defenses for Defamation in Georgia

For cases of online defamation, the courts in Georgia recognize Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act as a valid defense for websites and site operators who have not instructed a third party to post defamatory material.

Defendants can also claim that their written or broadcast statements are substantially true. Georgia also allows the fair reporting privilege and expressing opinion as a valid defense.

When the statement under review involves matters of public concern, the Plaintiff must show that the defendant:

  1. Published the statement about the plaintiff;
  2. That the statement was false;
  3. That the defendant was at fault for publishing the statement; and
  4. That the Plaintiff suffered actual injury from the statements.

(Mathis v. Cannon, 276 Ga 16 (2002))

Georgia is a Per Se State

Defamatory per se statements are inherently harmful, and as such plaintiffs in such cases don’t need to prove harm. Falsely accusing the plaintiff of sexual immorality, criminal behavior, or accusations of having a contagious disease, such as HIV/AIDS, are grounds for a defamation per se claim.

Can Opinions Be Defamatory?

Under Georgia law, opinions can be actionable defamation if the opinion can be reasonably interpreted, within the context of the entire writing, as a false statement of fact. In other words, if it’s not clear that a statement is an opinion, it could be considered defamatory under Georgia defamation law.

Damages Awarded for Defamation in Georgia

Among the damages for defamation in Georgia include:

  • actual damages
  • punitive damages
  • other damages awarded by the court
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