If you think you might have a viable defamation claim against someone who has said something to damage your reputation, you might be wondering how to proceed. Talking to an experienced lawyer is always a good idea, but one of the first things you need to know about defamation cases is how much time you might have to bring a lawsuit. In this article, we'll discuss these time limits (which come from a law called the statute of limitations) in the context of a defamation case. (For in-depth information on defamation claims, check out Nolo's Defamation, Libel & Slander section.)
What is a Statute of Limitations?
All states have specific deadlines for filing lawsuits, and these are found in laws called statutes of limitations. If you miss the deadline and don’t file your lawsuit until after the statute of limitation expires, your lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed. There are a couple of ways that a statute of limitations can be extended, but they are very limited exceptions, and you shouldn’t count on them applying in your case.
In a defamation case, the statute of limitations will generally begin running on the day that the defendant says or writes the defamatory words. So, if you live in a state with a two year statute of limitations for defamation cases, you would have two years from the day that someone said or write allegedly defamatory words about you within which to file a lawsuit against that person for defamation.
The Standard Statute of Limitations in Defamation Cases
The statute of limitations in defamation cases ranges from as short as six months to three years or even longer, depending on the state. An important complication in defamation statutes of limitation is that some states have different statutes of limitations for libel and slander, even though they are simply different types of defamation. Remember that slander is verbal defamation, and libel is written defamation. So, if you live in one of those states, and someone defamed you both orally and in writing, you would have separate statutes of limitations for your libel claim and your slander claim, even though those claims are against the same person.
Look up the Statute of Limitations in your state.
The "Discovery" Exception
The discovery rule is an exception to the standard statute of limitations in some states. This rule applies in situations where the victim of defamation did not know about the defamatory statement until some time after it was made, meaning after the statute of limitations would normally start running. It seems somewhat unlikely that you wouldn’t know about an allegedly defamatory statement right away in our age of instant communication, but it certainly is possible.
The discovery rule is phrased differently from state to state, but, in general, it stops the statute of limitations from running until the date that the victim of defamation either actually discovered that he/she was a victim of defamation, or reasonably should have discovered the defamation.
Example of the "Discovery" Rule
Let’s look at an example of how the discovery rule might extend the statute of limitations in a defamation case. Let’s say that your state has a one year statute of limitation for all defamation cases, including libel and slander. Let’s say that one of your co-workers falsely told your employer that you had copied someone else’s work for a report that you did for work. As a result, your employer fired you without giving you any explanation. Your boss simply called you into his office, told you that your work was unsatisfactory, fired you, and had you escorted off of the premises.
You had no idea what you did wrong, and none of your former co-workers said anything about it. Finally, a year and a half later, after the statute of limitations expired, one of your former co-workers told you that one of the other workers had falsely accused you of cheating, and that was why you were fired. If your state has the discovery rule exception in defamation cases, the statute of limitations for your defamation case would begin on the day that the former co-worker told you that you had been falsely accused. The discovery rule would thus allow you to file a defamation case that you hadn’t even known you had until after the standard statute of limitations expired.
Other Ways to Extend the Standard Statute of Limitations
Another important way that a statute of limitations can be extended in most states is if the defendant left the state after committing the defamation. In most states, the statute of limitations stops running during any time that the potential defendant is outside the state.