Damages in a Defamation Case

A look at the legal basis for a defamation claim and the concept of "damages."

Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If someone is spreading lies about you, you might be able to sue that person for defamation. Defamation is the legal term for making false statements about someone that damage that person's reputation. Written defamation is called "libel." Spoken defamation is called "slander."

Defamation is not a crime in most states, but it is a tort. A person who has been defamed (the "plaintiff") can file a civil lawsuit against the person who made the false statements (the "defendant") for money damages.

In this article, we'll cover:

  • the three main types of damages available in defamation cases, and
  • how to figure out how much your defamation case might be worth.

Basics of Defamation Law

Defamation laws vary from state to state, but most defamation plaintiffs have to prove:

  • the defendant made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff
  • the statement was made to a third party (someone other than the plaintiff)
  • the statement harmed the reputation of the plaintiff, and
  • the defendant was "negligent" (careless) about whether the statement was true or false.

Plaintiffs who are public figures—celebrities, politicians, professional athletes—have to show more than negligence. Public figures have to show "actual malice." Actual malice means that the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether the statement was true or false. Actual malice is a lot harder to prove than negligence.

To learn more, check out Nolo's in-depth coverage of Defamation, Libel, and Slander.

How Much Is a Defamation Case Worth?

As with any personal injury-related claim, the value of your defamation case will depend on your individual circumstances.

Some defamation claims end in multimillion-dollar awards for plaintiffs. In other cases, defamation plaintiffs may receive only "nominal damages." Nominal damages are damages of a very low amount, typically $1.

Nominal damages are appropriate when plaintiffs can prove that they've been defamed, but can't prove actual harm to their reputation because:

  • the defamatory statements weren't about anything important, or
  • the plaintiff already had a bad reputation.

Calculating defamation damages is complicated and often subjective. How do you put an exact dollar figure on something as intangible as a reputation?

The best way to get an accurate sense of how much your defamation case might be worth is to talk to a lawyer. A lawyer can help you decide if, when, and where to file a lawsuit.

Damages in Defamation Cases

Damages are the legal term for losses suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the harm caused by the defendant. Whether you settle your case or win a jury trial, the money you receive is compensation for your damages.

Let's take a look at the three most common categories of damages in defamation cases.

Special Damages

Special damages (sometimes economic damages) are damages that are meant to restore the plaintiff to the position the plaintiff would've been in if the defamation had never happened.

The most common negative consequence of a defamatory statement is harm to your professional reputation. For example, if you're a local restaurant owner and an employee makes a false statement about your restaurant being infested with rats and cockroaches, you're probably going to lose some customers and you may even lose your business.

On the flip side, if you're an employee who is falsely accused of theft by your boss, you'll likely have a hard time finding a new job.

In these situations and others like them, plaintiffs can ask for compensation for the financial consequences that flow from their damaged reputations, including:

Lost income and lost earning capacity refer to the wages that the plaintiff lost or will lose—past, present, and future—as a result of the defamation. Lost income and lost earning capacity also include benefits like health insurance, vacation time, pension, and 401(k) contributions that the plaintiff may have lost as a result of the defamation.

General Damages

General damages (sometimes called non-economic damages) are meant to compensate plaintiffs for harder-to-measure harms like "pain and suffering."

In a defamation case, pain and suffering might include:

  • mental anguish
  • emotional distress
  • public humiliation
  • shame
  • loss of enjoyment of life
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • loss of appetite and energy, and
  • sleep disturbance.

General damages aren't available in all defamation cases. In some states, general damages are allowed in libel (written) but not slander (verbal) defamation cases.

In other states, victims of slander can recover general damages, but only when the false statement is obviously harmful (called "slander per se") and caused the plaintiff financial harm.

Punitive Damages

Special and general damages are compensatory, meaning they are meant to compensate plaintiffs for their defamation-related losses. Punitive damages are different.

Punitive damages are designed to punish defendants for outrageously bad conduct. Punitive damages are available in some defamation cases. Plaintiffs typically have to show that the defendant acted with actual malice.

For example, in August 2022, a Texas jury found that U.S. conspiracy theorist Alex Jones must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages and $4.1 million in compensatory damages for falsely claiming that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. Just a few months later, on October 12, 2022, a Connecticut jury awarded nearly $1 billion in compensatory damages to the families of eight Sandy Hook victims and an F.B.I. agent who responded to the scene. The judge in Connecticut will decide on punitive damages next. The victims in Texas and Connecticut successfully argued that Jones profited off the lies he told about the mass shooting while they were harassed and abused by his followers.

Proving Damages in Defamation Cases

In some cases, typically when a statement is obviously defamatory, courts will assume that plaintiffs have suffered harm without them having to prove it. For example, most courts will presume that your reputation was damaged if someone falsely claims that you:

  • committed a crime
  • suffer from a contagious disease
  • lack professional competence or integrity, or
  • engaged in improper sexual conduct.

Courts have no set formula for calculating presumed damages. Some plaintiffs receive millions of dollars and others receive nominal damages as low as $1.

Plaintiffs who have to prove harm to their reputation typically rely on their own testimony and witnesses to show that the defendant's statements were false and resulted in economic and personal harm. They might also offer documents like bank statements, tax returns, medical records, and receipts to back up their claims.

Is It Worth Suing for Defamation?

If you've suffered significant financial harm because someone is spreading lies about you, it might be worth filing a defamation lawsuit. For example, if you can show that you lost out on well-paying work because someone falsely accused you of being a "perv" or a "creeper," then you should talk to a lawyer. Not only would you be able to get compensation for your financial losses, but you might also vindicate your good name.

On the other hand, filing a lawsuit will probably bring more attention to the false statements than they've gotten had you not sued. And you risk winning your lawsuit, but only receiving nominal damages.

Only you can decide if filing a defamation lawsuit is worth the emotional and financial toll it will take on you. But a lawyer can answer your questions and review the pros and cons of filing a personal injury lawsuit.

Talk to a Defamation Lawyer

Defamation is a complicated area of law. We all enjoy the right to freedom of speech in the United States, but nobody should be able to ruin your life by telling lies about you.

A lawyer can help you sort out whether you've been the victim of libel or slander and whether it makes sense to file a lawsuit to restore your reputation and get compensation for your losses.

Take a step-by-step look at a typical defamation case and learn more about what your lawyer will do in a defamation lawsuit. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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