How Long Do I Have to File a Defamation Lawsuit in California?

Under California law, you typically have one year to file a defamation lawsuit.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you're thinking about filing a defamation lawsuit in California, it's crucial for you to understand and comply with the state's filing deadline—called the "statute of limitations"—for this type of civil lawsuit.

In this article, we'll cover defamation law basics, including California's statute of limitations, why compliance with the statute of limitations is so important, and when the filing period may be extended.

California Defamation Law

In California, as in most states, written defamation is called "libel." Spoken defamation is called "slander."

Elements of a Defamation Lawsuit

In California, a plaintiff suing for defamation typically must show that the defendant:

  • made a false statement of fact about the plaintiff
  • the statement was made to a third party (someone other than the plaintiff), and
  • the statement harmed the plaintiff's reputation.

Private figures bringing a defamation lawsuit in California must also show that the defendant was careless (negligent) about whether the statement was true or false. Public figures and officials—politicians, celebrities, heads of major corporations—must show more than negligence. Public figures must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice" by making a statement knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Learn more about the elements of a defamation claim.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 44, 45, 46 (2022).)

Defamation Per Se

California law recognizes that some statements, called "defamation per se," are so obviously harmful that plaintiffs don't have to show that the statements actually caused them financial harm.

Examples of defamation per se include falsely stating that the plaintiff:

  • committed a crime
  • has a stigmatized disease
  • lacks professional skills or ethics, or
  • engaged in improper sexual conduct.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 44a, 48a (2022).)

Defenses to Defamation

California law allows defendants to raise several privileges and defenses in defamation cases. Most commonly, defendants argue that the allegedly defamatory statements were substantially true, the statements were an opinion, or that the person making the statement had the privilege to make it.

For example, the "fair report privilege" shields people who rely on official public documents or statements by public officials from liability for defamation. The fair report privilege is likely to apply to:

  • testimony during a trial
  • facts recorded in a final police report
  • an analysis reported in a government document, or
  • speeches made by politicians.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 47 (2022).)

California's Filing Deadline for a Defamation Claim is one Year

You have one year to file a defamation (slander or libel) lawsuit in California. In most cases, the statute of limitations begins to run when the defendant first speaks or publishes an allegedly defamatory statement. In some cases, when a defamatory statement is hard to find or not a matter of public knowledge, it begins to run when the plaintiff discovers, or should have discovered, the defamatory statement.

California follows the "single publication" rule, which says that a publisher can only be sued— and the statute of limitations begins to run—over the original publishing of a text, not subsequent distributions or additional printings of the same statement. But if the statement is revised or repackaged for a new audience, a new statute of limitations period will likely begin.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 340(c), 3425.1-3425.5 (2022).)

Where Should I File a California Defamation Lawsuit?

Before you file your lawsuit, you'll need to figure out where to file it.

If you are suing someone who lives in California or a company or organization that does business in California for defamation, a California superior court will have the authority to hear and decide your case.

You'll have to file your lawsuit in the county where the person or entity you are suing lives or does business.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 392 through 403 (2022); Johnson v. Superior Court of Fresno County, 232 Cal.App.2d 212 (Cal. Ct. App. 1965).)

How Much Is a Typical Defamation Case Worth in California?

No two defamation cases are the same, so it's impossible to say how much a typical defamation case is worth.

Some California plaintiffs receive millions of dollars in damages. For example, in October 2021, a Glenn County jury awarded nearly $40 million to Dalas Gundersen, a former Edward Jones broker. Gundersen was defamed by his former colleagues at Edward Jones who posted fake sex ads on Craigslist with Gundersen's business phone number and physical description.

But most defamation cases don't end in multimillion-dollar awards. Some plaintiffs lose their cases and get nothing. Others win and get only nominal damages as low as $1. Still others end up with a satisfying court award or settlement. The value of each lawsuit depends on the individual facts and circumstances of the case.

The three most common categories of damages in defamation cases include:

Learn more about damages in a defamation case.

Are Defamation Cases Hard to Win in California?

Defamation lawsuits are hard to win in California, particularly defamation lawsuits brought by public figures. Defamation laws have to balance your right to defend your reputation against someone else's right to free speech.

People accused of defamation often defend themselves by claiming that the statements were true or that they were just stating an opinion and not a fact. Slander lawsuits tend to be harder to prove than libel because you have to track down witnesses who will testify about what they heard someone say about you rather than having the statement in writing.

Defamation lawsuits are complex and time-consuming. Most people don't have the money to fund a lengthy lawsuit and some lawyers might not be willing to take defamation cases on a contingency fee basis because of the risks involved.

Extending California's Statute of Limitations Deadline for Defamation Lawsuits

Remember, in most defamation cases in California, the statute of limitations begins to run when the defendant first makes the allegedly defamatory statement. But several situations can delay or pause the statute of limitations "clock" for defamation lawsuits. Here are a few examples:

  • If a defamatory statement is hard to discover or not a matter of public knowledge, the "delayed discovery rule" provides that the limitations period begins to run when the plaintiff learns, or should have learned, of the existence of the defamatory statement.
  • If a defendant leaves California the one-year statute of limitations is suspended during the absence.
  • If the potential plaintiff is under the age of 18 or lacks the legal capacity to make decisions when defamatory statements are made, the time of the disability is not included in the one-year statute of limitations period.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 340(c), 351, 352 (2022).)

What If You Miss the Filing Deadline?

If you try to file a defamation lawsuit in California more than one year after the defamatory statements were first made, and no exception applies to extend the statute of limitations deadline, your lawsuit will be dismissed.

You will not only lose your chance to get compensation for your losses in court, but you'll also lose leverage in out-of-court settlement negotiations. If the other side knows that the statute of limitations deadline is near or has already passed, the likelihood of resolving your case is slim to none.

If you have questions about how California's statute of limitations applies to your potential defamation lawsuit—especially if the one-year deadline has passed or is looming—it's time to discuss your situation with a knowledgeable California attorney.

Next Steps

As you can see, defamation is a complicated area of law. A lawyer can help you sort out whether you can prove you've been the victim of libel or slander and how long you have to file a lawsuit to restore your reputation and get compensation for your losses.

To get your defamation lawsuit started:

  1. Find out what your lawyer will do in a defamation lawsuit.
  2. Review the timeline of a defamation claim.
  3. Learn more about what to expect when you file a civil lawsuit for defamation.

When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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