The Statute of Limitations for Defamation Lawsuits

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

If you think you might have a viable defamation claim against someone who has said or published something that has damaged your reputation or otherwise caused you harm, you might be wondering about your legal options. Talking to an experienced lawyer is always a good first step, and it's also important to understand your state's statute of limitations for defamation (libel or slander) lawsuits, and how it applies to your potential case. In this article, we'll discuss these laws, how they work, and why they matter.

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 cases 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 cases, you would have two years to get any civil lawsuit 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.

The "Discovery" Exception

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.

Other Ways to Extend the Standard Statute of Limitations Deadline

Every state has legislated different scenarios that might delay the running of the statute of limitations "clock," 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 and takes up residence in another 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 absence, in other words).
  • If the subject of the defamatory statement was 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.
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