Defamation, Libel, and Slander Statute of Limitations

Understanding and abiding by the statutory lawsuit filing deadline is crucial to your defamation case.

Updated by , J.D.

If someone makes a false statement about you, one which damages your reputation or causes you financial harm, you might be wondering whether you have a valid defamation case:

  • It's crucial to first understand when a statement does and doesn't qualify as libel (written or published defamation) or slander (spoken defamation).
  • It's also important to understand your state's statute of limitations for defamation lawsuits, and how it applies to your potential case.
  • Related issues include when the statute of limitations "clock" might start, and when the lawsuit-filing deadline might be extended.

Defamation, Libel, and Slander Basics

Generally speaking, defamation happens when one person makes a false statement about someone else, whose reputation suffers harm as a result. Writing a defamatory statement, posting it online, or otherwise publishing it can amount to "libel," while "slander" refers to a defamatory statement that's spoken. Learn more about the differences between libel and slander, and what goes into proving a defamation claim.

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

All states have specific deadlines for filing different kinds of lawsuits, codified in laws called "statutes of limitations." No matter what kind of case you're filing, if you miss the statutory deadline, the person or business you're trying to sue will ask the court to dismiss your case, and the court will almost certainly grant the dismissal (unless your situation calls for an extension of the filing deadline; more on these rare instances later).

The Statute of Limitations in Defamation Cases

In a defamation case, the statute of limitations will generally begin running on the day on which the defendant first says or writes the defamatory words. So, if you live in a state with a two-year statute of limitations for defamation lawsuits, you would have two years to get your libel or slander case filed against the person who spoke/wrote/published the harmful statement about you, beginning on the date on which the statement was first made.

The "Single Publication Rule." It's important to note that in most states, even if the statement is later repeated or republished, the statute of limitations "clock" doesn't reset, and the plaintiff (the subject of the statement) doesn't have a legal right to bring another, separate defamation lawsuit. What usually matters is the date on which the defamatory statement was first made or first published, for purposes of the running of the statute of limitations, and for purposes of asking a court for defamation damages. This is sometimes referred to as the "single publication rule."

The statute of limitations for defamation lawsuits is usually around one to three years, depending on the state. A few states have different statutes of limitations for libel and slander, even though they are simply different types of defamation. So, if you live in one of those states, and someone defamed you both orally and in writing, you probably have different lawsuit filing deadlines to consider, even though the claims would be against the same person.

Defamation Statute of Limitations In Your State

Get the details on the defamation statute of limitations in your state in our Time Limits to File a Defamation Lawsuit article (from AllLaw.com).

The "Discovery" Exception and Defamation Lawsuits

The "discovery rule" is an exception to the standard statute of limitations deadline in many states. This rule applies in situations where the subject 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.

The discovery rule is phrased differently from state to state, but, in general, it stops the statute of limitations from running until the date on which the subject of the defamation (the potential plaintiff) either actually discovered or learned of the harmful statement, or reasonably should have discovered/learned of it.

Example of the "Discovery" Exception

Let's say you live in California, which has a one-year statute of limitations for all defamation cases, and one of your co-workers falsely told your employer that you had copied someone else's work for an important year-end report. As a result, your employer fired you without 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 (six months after the California statute of limitations deadline for defamation lawsuits had already expired), one of your former co-workers told you that the cheating allegations were the reason for your firing. If your state follows the discovery rule exception for defamation cases (as California does), the statute of limitations for your defamation case might not begin to run until the day your former co-worker filled you in on the circumstances that led to your firing.

"Tolling" the Statute of Limitations In Special Situations

Every state has legislated different scenarios that might "toll" the statute of limitations "clock" (stop it from running) or pause the clock after it has started to run, effectively extending the filing deadline. But there are a number of scenarios that show up across multiple states. For example:

  • If the defendant (the person who made the defamatory statement) leaves the state before the lawsuit can be filed, the time of absence probably won't be counted toward the statutory deadline (the clock stops running during the defendant's absence, in other words).
  • If the subject of the defamatory statement was a minor (under the age of 18) or was considered legally incapacitated at the time of the statement, the statute of limitations "clock" probably won't start running until the person turns 18 or is declared legally competent.

Getting Help With a Libel or Slander Claim

If you think you've got a valid claim for libel or slander, and you'd like to learn more about your options and the right course of action, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an experienced legal professional. That's especially true if you've read this article and have questions about the statute of limitations and how it applies to your potential lawsuit.

Learn more about if, when, and where to file a lawsuit, and get tips on hiring a lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer near you using the features on this page.

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