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Defamation Laws in Alabama ©

The following information is provided without remuneration and as a courtesy of the law firm of Boteler, Finley & Wolfe (http://www.bfw-lawyers.com/). Readers are reminded that laws are dynamic and subject to being changed by legislative acts and/or case law decisions. Also, please note that this paper is regarding Alabama law on defamation. The defamation laws of another State may not be the same as the laws set forth herein. Please consult with an attorney for more information about the application of defamation laws to your particular fact situation. Written by Mark Wolfe (http://www.bfw-lawyers.com/about/wolfe/) [email protected] The information and material below is based upon the Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions (APJI) - Civil updated and revised on December 6, 2010. Jury instructions or "jury charges’ are a summary of the existing laws related to a particular matter or issue. They are used by a jury to apply to the facts and evidence they have heard during the course of a trial to determine if a civil wrong has occurred and if damages for the wrong should be awarded. The person or entity bringing a civil action for an alleged wrong is the Plaintiff and the person or entity accused of the alleged wrong is the Defendant.

QUICK SUMMARY OF DEFAMATION LAWS IN ALABAMA The legal term "defamation" includes either a published false statement (libel) or a spoken false statement (slander) done with some degree of fault and causing injury to the subject’s reputation. Any time you are bringing a claim, you carry the burden of proof related to the elements of the cause of action and the damages claimed. The first legal hurdle in a defamation case is proving the statement in issue is false. Second, you have to prove the statement was made with some degree of fault. This could include an actual intent to harm, but also could include a statement made carelessly. Next, you have to prove the statement to the recipient did in fact hurt or harm your reputation with the recipient (and to others who may have also received or heard of the false statement.) Then, finally, you have to prove the extent and nature of the damages caused by the false statement. These four hurdles make defamation/libel cases very difficult because unless you can prove all four elements, your case will not be successful. Alabama law does authorize and allow the recovery of punitive damages for defamatory statements but the plaintiff must also prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff in order to recover punitive damages. Also, before punitive damages can be considered in a libel action, the plaintiff must have requested a retraction before filing a lawsuit.

SELECTED JURY CHARGES FROM THE ALABAMA PATTERN JURY INSTRUCTIONS(APJI) RELATED TO DEFAMATION

APJI 23.00 Definition: Defamation (Libel or Slander). Defamation (in other words, libel or slander) means the communication to another, with some degree of fault, of a false and defamatory statement of fact concerning the plaintiff. Defamation is essentially an injury to reputation. A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of the plaintiff as to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating with the plaintiff. A communication is defamatory if it charges an offense punishable by indictment, or if it tends to bring an individual into public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or if it charges an act odious and disgraceful in society. This general definition may be said to include whatever tends to injure the character of an individual or blacken the person's reputation; impute fraud, dishonesty, or other moral turpitude; reflect shame; or tend to put the person outside the pale of social intercourse.

APJI 23.04 Proof: False Statement. The plaintiff has the burden of proving that the statement that is complained of was false regarding the plaintiff. If the statement was true or substantially true, or if you cannot determine from the evidence whether the statement was true or false, then you must find for the defendant. In determining whether the statement was true or false, you must not consider whether the statement was absolutely and in all respects accurate, but rather whether the statement was substantially accurate and accurate in all material respects with regard to the plaintiff.

APJI 23.05 Proof: Defamatory Statement. The plaintiff has the burden of proving to your reasonable satisfaction that the statement that is complained of was defamatory. A statement is defamatory only if it tends so to harm the reputation of the plaintiff as to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating with the plaintiff. Defamation includes whatever tends to impute fraud, dishonesty, or other moral turpitude, reflect shame, or tends to put the plaintiff outside the pale of social discourse.

APJI 23.07 Proof: Publication. The plaintiff has the burden of proving to your reasonable satisfaction that the defendant published the statement that is complained of. Publication of defamatory matter is the communication of that matter intentionally or negligently to a third party.

APJI 23.09 Fault (Private Figure Plaintiff): Negligence. Because the plaintiff is a private figure--that is, not a public figure or public official--for purposes of this action, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant published the statement that is complained of either intentionally or with negligence. Negligence means the failure to exercise reasonable care--that is, such care as a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances.

APJI 23.10 Fault (Public Figure/Official Plaintiff): Actual Malice. Because the plaintiff is a public figure/official in regard to the statement that is complained of, the plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the statement that is complained of with actual malice--that is, with knowledge that the statement was false or with "reckless disregard."In determining whether the defendant published in "reckless disregard" of whether the statement that is complained of was false or not, you must not consider whether a reasonably prudent person would have published the statement or would have investigated before publishing; instead, you must be clearly convinced that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement. Clear and convincing proof involves a degree of belief greater than the usually imposed burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. Clear and convincing proof leaves no substantial doubt in your mind. It is proof that establishes in your mind not only that the proposition at issue is probable, but also that it is highly probable.

APJI 23.14 Compensatory Damages: Definition and Purpose. Compensatory damages are allowed and should be awarded if the plaintiff has proved each element of the [libel][slander] claim as already explained and, in addition, has reasonably satisfied you from the evidence that the plaintiff has been injured or damaged as a proximate result of the [libel][slander]. The purpose of awarding compensatory damages is to fairly and reasonably compensate the injured party for the loss or injury sustained. Compensatory damages are intended as money compensation to the party wronged, to compensate for that party's injury and other damages that have been inflicted upon the party as a proximate result of the wrong complained of.

APJI 23.26 Damages Mitigated: Retraction. If the defendant has proved to your reasonable satisfaction that the statement that is complained of was made in good faith by mistake or inadvertence or misapprehension, and that the defendant has retracted the statement in the same medium of publication as the statement was originally promulgated and in a prominent place therein, then you may consider these facts in mitigation of any damage award to the plaintiff.

APJI 23.21 Punitive Damages: Definition and Purpose. If, based upon the law as given to you by the court, you award compensatory damages to the plaintiff, then you may also consider an award of punitive damages, in accordance with the following principles. Punitive damages are allowed to the plaintiff and may be awarded in the sound discretion of the jury if the plaintiff has proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff and the plaintiff has met certain other proofs that are required in libel or slander cases. Clear and convincing proof involves a degree of belief greater than the usually-imposed burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. Clear and convincing proof leaves no substantial doubt in your mind. It is proof that establishes in your mind not only that the proposition at issue is probable, but also that it is highly probable. The purpose of awarding punitive damages is to allow money recovery to the plaintiff by way of punishment to the defendant, and for the added purpose of protecting the public by deterring the defendant and others from doing such wrong in the future. If you award punitive damages, in fixing the amount you must take into consideration the character and degree of the wrong as shown by the evidence in the case, and the necessity of preventing similar wrongs.

APJI 23.22 Punitive Damages: Retraction Within Ten Days (Libel or Slander). If you are reasonably satisfied that the statement that is complained of was published in good faith; that its falsity was due to mistake and misapprehension; and that a retraction of any false statement therein was published within ten days of the date of the initial publication, in the same medium of publication and in a prominent position therein, then you cannot award the plaintiff any punitive damages.

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