Timeline of a Defamation Claim

A step-by-step look at a typical defamation case, plus tips on what to expect.

Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney

If you think someone's lies about you are hurting your reputation or your finances, you might have a claim for libel or slander, the two forms of defamation. But before you sue it's important to consider how your lawsuit might proceed and what outcomes it's reasonable for you to expect. This article will:

  • give you some background on what's involved in a defamation case, and
  • walk you through the steps of a libel or slander lawsuit.

Should You File a Defamation Lawsuit?

It's never a good feeling when someone is saying or writing things about you that aren't true, especially if a lot of people are paying attention. But the First Amendment and state laws set a high standard for demonstrating that someone defamed you and should have to pay you damages.

Defamation cases can take a long time and cost a lot of money. They can also draw even more attention to the negative statements you're suing over. So be sure that a lawsuit is the best way to restore your reputation or recoup your financial losses.

What Do You Have to Prove to Win a Defamation Case?

States all have their own civil statutes defining defamation and laying out how plaintiffs can be compensated. So make sure you know what laws apply to your case—this is an area where a knowledgeable attorney can provide helpful advice. In general, to prove defamation you must at least show that:

  1. Someone said or wrote something about you that was untrue (not just that they said something hurtful or unfair).
  2. They said it to someone other than you. Defamation law deals with your reputation with other people, so you can't be defamed by something only you read or hear.
  3. The statement was injurious. We'll talk more about what this means below, when we discuss possible defamation settlements.

How Long Does a Defamation Case Take to Finish?

It's difficult to predict how long it will take for a defamation case either to settle or to be decided by a judge or jury. And it's possible that an appeal could extend the timeline further. Later we'll discuss the stages of a defamation case and the factors that can influence their timing. But it's reasonable to expect that your case would take a minimum of several months, and potentially as long as several years.

How Likely Is a Settlement in a Defamation Case?

Most lawsuits aren't decided by a judge or jury. Like most civil cases, injury-related lawsuits usually end with a settlement—that is, an agreement in which the plaintiff gets something (usually money) from the defendant in exchange for dismissing the lawsuit. So you should have an idea from the start of what kind of settlement would be acceptable to you.

Having a clear sense of why you're suing is particularly important in a defamation case. In most lawsuits, the plaintiff is seeking financial compensation. In a defamation case, though, non-financial goals might be just as important—for example, getting the defendant to apologize, or admit that the things they said aren't true. In fact, many states require you to request a retraction before you file a libel lawsuit—and the person who made the allegedly defamatory statements can prevent a lawsuit entirely by issuing a complete retraction.

These non-financial considerations mean that there may be more options in a defamation case for negotiating a settlement that both sides can live with. We'll talk below about the stages in a lawsuit where a settlement might be most likely.

What Percentage of Defamation Cases Are Won By the Plaintiff?

Each defamation case is different, and its success or failure is closely tied to its specific facts. So you should evaluate your potential lawsuit on its own merits—especially because it is very difficult to say for sure how successful plaintiffs are in "average" defamation cases. Since most lawsuits settle, and the terms of those agreements often remain private, there is often limited reliable data and no way to tell how happy either side might be with the outcome.

Compared with standard personal injury cases, defamation claims can be more challenging for plaintiffs for several reasons, including:

  1. Plaintiffs may need to address concerns that the statements at issue are protected by the First Amendment. Courts have interpreted the First Amendment to mean that public figures have to meet a higher standard to prove that they've been defamed—and you might be a "public figure" from a legal standpoint even if you aren't a politician or a celebrity.
  2. Plaintiffs will have to prove that the statements were actually false statements of fact, and not just insults. Even some statements that sound factual ("that restaurant has the worst food in town"; "their prices are a rip-off") are likely to be interpreted by courts as legally-protected opinion or exaggeration.

What Is the Average Defamation Settlement Amount?

Defamation cases also present challenges when it comes to proving damages or deciding on a fair settlement value. It can be difficult to demonstrate that you've been injured by libel or slander in a way that entitles you to financial compensation. In some states it's enough to show that a statement harmed your reputation and that you experienced pain and suffering as a result. But many states require you to demonstrate concrete financial harm—for example, you might need to show proof that lies about your business caused you to lose paying customers. Learn more about damages in a defamation lawsuit.

What Are the Stages of a Defamation Lawsuit?

If you do decide to proceed with a defamation lawsuit, the first step will be choosing the right lawyer—a defamation case isn't the kind of legal action that you want to try handling on your own.

You should certainly talk to a number of lawyers via phone or video call, and you might want to meet several of them. It may be difficult to find a lawyer who specializes in defamation cases. But you should make sure to work with an attorney who understands defamation law in general and who has a good handle on the specific issues involved in your case. You should also look for:

  • a good litigator with a track record of success in past cases, and
  • a lawyer who is willing to take your case on a contingency fee basis, meaning the lawyer gets paid a percentage of any financial recovery you receive

After you choose a lawyer and sign a fee agreement, the case will begin.

Your Lawyer Will Investigate the Case

The first thing a good lawyer will do is thoroughly interview you about what happened. They will want to know:

  • exactly what the defendant said or wrote about you
  • the circumstances of the statement (where and how it was made, to whom, and so on)
  • how you heard about the statement
  • who your witnesses might be
  • the nature and extent of your damages, and
  • what it will take to prove those damages.

In a libel (written defamation) case, the lawyer will want a copy of what the defendant wrote about you.

Any good lawyer will want to make sure they know everything that you know about what happened. Then, they may want to talk with (or have an investigator talk with) any witnesses who will agree to cooperate with you.

After the lawyer has completed their investigation, they will meet with you to give their opinion about whether you have a viable defamation case. If the lawyer determines that there is no case, they'll often deliver the bad news to the client very early on.

Your Lawyer Will Consider Making a Demand and Negotiating a Settlement

Many personal injury and defamation cases can be settled before a lawsuit is ever filed. If the lawyer thinks that you have a case and that there is a chance of settling, they'll send a formal demand letter to the defendant. Otherwise, the lawyer will file a lawsuit.

The Lawsuit Is Filed

A civil lawsuit begins when the plaintiff files the complaint—a document identifying the defendant (or defendants) and providing basic allegations that the defendant violated one or more civil laws. The filing of the complaint starts the clock running on when the case might get to trial. Every state's pretrial procedures are different, but generally it will take from a year and a half to three years after the lawsuit is filed for a defamation case to get to trial.

The Defendant Might File a Motion to Dismiss the Case

When a lawsuit is filed the defendant has the option of responding with a motion to dismiss. In a motion to dismiss the defense asks the judge to rule that, even if all of the facts and allegations in the plaintiff's complaint are true, they still don't prove that the defendant did anything wrong.

Motions to dismiss are common in defamation cases because—as we mentioned above—defendants will often want to argue that their statements are protected by the First Amendment, that they're just opinions, or both. A successful motion to dismiss will end a case in the defendant's favor. But if the motion alerts you to a shortcoming in your original complaint you might be able to address it by filing an amended complaint.

The Discovery Process

In most courts, the judge will issue a scheduling order shortly after the lawsuit has been filed and the defendant has filed an "answer" to the complaint. The scheduling order sets up the timeline for the remainder of the litigation. Most significantly, the scheduling order sets up a deadline for completing discovery.

Discovery is a court-supervised process in which the parties gather information to help support their positions and to test the strength of the other side's case. The parties send written interrogatories (a fancy word for questions) and document requests to each other, and conduct question-and-answer sessions (depositions) in which witnesses and parties must respond under oath.

The discovery process can last up to a year, depending on the scheduling order, and it often requires the parties to go back to court to get the judge's help. Many times, one or both parties are dissatisfied with the other side's responses to the interrogatories and/or document requests, so a motion to compel further responses is filed. The judge will hear each side's arguments and then make a decision. This can happen multiple times during the course of a lawsuit, depending on how combative the parties and their lawyers are.

Mediation and Negotiation

As the discovery period ends, the lawyers will generally start talking about settlement. Sometimes the lawyers can settle a case just by talking amongst themselves. In other instances, they will go to mediation—a process in which the parties and their lawyers present their positions to a mediator (a neutral third-party) who then helps them to find common ground and reach a settlement. Almost all courts now require civil litigants to attempt mediation before trial.

Learn more about settling a personal injury case.

Trial

A defamation trial could last anywhere from a day to a week or more, depending on how much evidence and witness testimony is necessary to prove your case.

It's important to note that the trial date for a lawsuit is never set in stone. Trials often get postponed because the judge or one of the lawyers has a scheduling conflict. If your trial date gets pushed back, you should not assume that the judge doesn't care about your case or that an attorney who requested a delay has done something unethical. Trial postponements happen all the time. Depending on the court, your trial might get rescheduled two or three times.

Taking the Next Steps in Your Defamation Case

For more in-depth information about defamation law and your options for filing a lawsuit, check out our collection of Defamation, Libel & Slander articles. If you think you'd benefit from the assistance of a legal professional, focus on finding the right lawyer for you and your case. You can use the features on this page to connect with an attorney near you.

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