Not all injuries are physical. There are times when words can be incredibly harmful and hurtful. This is particularly true if you are going through a divorce. When get you a divorce you essentially have to figure out how to split one life into two. This can require determining how property is divided and who gets custody of the kids. These aren’t easy tasks to accomplish. When stress and tensions run high, it’s easy for a spouse to become consumed with anger and say or write negative things about the other.
If your spouse has resorted to telling lies about you or spreading vicious rumors, you may want to consider filing a defamation lawsuit. However, not every hurtful thing your spouse says will be defamatory. It’s important to understand what defamation is and when it exists.
What is Defamation?
Defamation occurs when a person makes a statement that is false and injures another person’s reputation. Not just any lie will be defamatory. In order to be defamatory, a lie must be made intentionally and with the purpose of harming another person in a specific way.
There are two types of defamation: libel and slander. Libel involves written defamatory statements, while slander involves defamatory statements that are spoken aloud.
Do I Have a Defamation Case?
So, your spouse has intentionally said or written something false about you. You’ve been harmed in some way because of these harmful statements. How can you know if you have a valid defamation case? In California, defamation cases must prove five things.
1. The Statement Was False
A statement can only be defamatory if it is false. You must be able to show that the harmful thing your spouse said about you is not true.
2. The Statement Wasn’t an Opinion
A defamatory statement must be asserted as a fact. In other words, you cannot sue your spouse for simply offering a negative opinion about you. The hurtful thing they said must have been intended to be received as a fact.
Opinion: Scott says that he thinks Sam is a bad mother.
Fact: Scott says that Sam is a bad mother because she doesn’t spend any quality time with her kids.
Sam can’t sue Scott for defamation for saying that he thinks she is a bad mother. She may, however, have a defamation case on her hands if Scott tells others, as a matter of fact, that she is a bad mother. Facts are often offered up as statements with some sort of support.
3. The Statement Injured Your Reputation
A false statement can only be defamatory if it causes an injury to your reputation. This is a fairly subjective standard. Whether or not a false statement has injured your reputation will require a thorough analysis of the circumstances of your specific case. However, courts in California have explained that statements that expose “any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided” can be classified as defamatory.
4. The Statement Was Published
A statement is only defamatory if it is made to an audience. Things said privately between you and your spouse without witnesses won’t qualify as defamatory. A false and hurtful statement must be expressed to a third party in some way. This could be via email or social media, through word of mouth, or penned in a letter.
5. You Were Harmed
You can only sue for defamation if the false statement has harmed you in some way. Proving harm will depend on the type of defamation lawsuit you are trying to pursue. Harm is presumed when defamatory statements are written (libel). Harm is not presumed when defamatory statements are spoken (slander).
Harm can be emotional, psychological, social, or even financial. It will be important to gather any evidence of any harm that you suffer because of your spouse’s defamatory statement(s).
Some Statements Protected by Privilege in Divorce Proceedings
Honesty and transparency are important in all family law proceedings, including those for divorce. Spouses have to be able to communicate without fear of repercussions. In order to encourage honesty, California provides certain protections (known as privileges) for the things that are said during official divorce proceedings.
A privilege is a special right and protection from liability for certain actions. When you are involved in a divorce, you and your spouse may enjoy a special privilege for the things you say. This privilege will prevent you from suing your spouse for the hurtful statements made in court and in the ordinary course of the divorce case.
This doesn’t mean that everything your spouse says during a divorce is off-limits. While it may be more difficult to file a lawsuit based on things that are said in court, you can still target defamatory statements made on your spouse’s own time. This can include:
- Rumors spread at a bar after a hearing
- False and vicious social media posts
- Lies told to your children to turn them against you, or
- Emails sent to your employer with false information to hurt your career.
Privileges can protect some statements that are made in court or official legal proceedings. However, it should be comforting to know that most statements made in court or an official proceeding are under oath. When a statement is made under oath it must be truthful. If your spouse lies under oath they can be vulnerable to some very harsh criminal consequences.
When Can I File a Defamation Lawsuit in California?
You only have a limited amount of time to file a defamation lawsuit in California. In most cases, you must file your lawsuit within one year of when the defamatory statement was first made. You will be prohibited from getting the money and satisfaction you deserve if you don’t file your claim before the statute of limitations expires.
If your spouse made a defamatory statement about you during your divorce it’s important to speak with a personal injury attorney immediately. This will help to ensure that your personal injury claim is filed on time.
What Damages Can I Recover From a Defamation Lawsuit?
Defamatory statements can cause a lot of damage. When you decide to file a defamation lawsuit you have the right to demand compensation. In California, you may be entitled to economic, non-economic, and/or punitive damages.
Economic Damages: Awarded to compensate for verifiable financial costs and losses that are the result of a defamatory communication. This can include lost wages, missed job opportunities, and damage to profession or occupation.
Non-Economic Damages: Awarded to compensate for the emotional, psychological, and social harm that a defamatory statement inflicts. This can include compensation for injury to reputation, embarrassment, and emotional distress.
Punitive Damages: Awarded for the sole purpose of punishing the person who issued the defamatory statement. Punitive damages are only awarded when the defendant acted with actual malice.
It’s important to consult with an attorney if your spouse has made defamatory statements about you in your divorce. Your attorney will investigate your case, gather the evidence you need, and fight to get you the money you deserve.
About the Author: Sherwin Arzani, a founding partner of Citywide Law Group, is a well-respected personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles, CA. He helps his clients to assert their rights and fight for the compensation they deserve after an injury. He had been recognized as one of the “Top Attorneys in Southern California” because of his tenacious approach and dedication to the law.