Written by attorney Scott David Hughes

California Defamation, Slander and Libel

Private individuals as well as public figures may sue others when there is a substantial danger to his or her reputation as a result of anothers written or spoken defamation.

A plaintiff may recover damages for speech that is proved to be defamatory or libelous. The damages available for defamation fall into three categories:

(1) general damages, a type of compensatory damages, which necessarily result from the defamation and which the law presumes to result from a statement defamatory on its face;

(2) special damages, a second type of compensatory damages, or those that are the natural consequence of the defamation, but not the necessary result of it; and

(3) punitive damages, which are available only if actual malice or recklessness as to falsity is shown.

In defamation actions, general damages are those which the law presumes to result from publication of the defamation. They include damages for loss of reputation, shame, mortification, and hurt feelings.

Where the statement is defamatory per se the plaintiff need not allege or prove any special damages in order to bring the action. Civ. Code, § 45a (libel on its face). However, a publication not defamatory per se is not actionable unless the plaintiff alleges that the publication has caused him or her special damages. Civ. Code, § 45a.

Punitive damages are those which the jury may grant in its discretion, in addition to all general and special damages, to punish a defendant who has acted with actual malice and to deter others from following the same conduct.

Checklist for plaintiff to consider:

• Where defendant is publisher or broadcaster, a demand for retraction must be served within 20 days of time plaintiff became aware of defamation

• Service of retraction demand must be on the publisher, not on author

• If action is against media defendant and plaintiff seeks general or exemplary damages, plaintiff must make allegation of timely written demand for correction, and its refusal

• If no correction is demanded, special damages may be recovered, but they must be pleaded

• Statute of limitations is one year after publication.

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