Who Can Sue For Defamation

In order to be actionable, a defamatory statement must be "of and concerning" the plaintiff. This means that a defamation plaintiff must show that a reasonable person would understand that the statement was referring to him or her. Of course, if a blog post or online article identifies the plaintiff by name, this requirement will be easily met. The plaintiff need not be specifically named, however, if there are enough identifying facts that any (but not necessarily every) person reading or hearing it would reasonably understand it to refer to the plaintiff. For example, a statement that "a local policeman who recently had an auto accident had been seen drinking alcohol while on duty" would likely be actionable because the policeman could be identified based on his recent accident.

Group Libel

Accordingly, defamatory statements about a group or class of people generally are not actionable by individual members of that group or class. There are two exceptions to this general rule that exist when:

  • the group or class is so small that the statements are reasonably understood to refer to the individual in question; or
  • the circumstances make it reasonable to conclude that the statement refers particularly to the individual in question.

See Restatement (2d) of Torts, § 564A (1977).

As to the first exception -- statements about a small group -- courts have often held that an individual group member can bring a claim for defamation for statements directed at a group of 25 or fewer people. The 25-person line is not a hard-and-fast rule, but rather the way courts commonly distinguish between a group small enough for statements about the whole group to be imputed to individual members and one that is too large to support such an imputation.

The case of Neiman-Marcus v. Lait, 13 F.R.D. 311 (S.D.N.Y. 1952), provides a good illustration of this general rule. In that case, the defendants wrote that "most of the [Neiman-Marcus] sales staff are fairies" and that some of the company's saleswomen were "call girls." Fifteen of the 25 salesmen and 30 of the 382 saleswomen at the store brought suit for defamation. Applying New York and Texas law, the court held that the salesmen had a valid cause of action, but the saleswomen did not. Even though the statement referred to "most of" the salesmen, without naming names or specifying further, the statement could be understood to refer to any individual member of this small group. The group of saleswomen, however, was so large that a statement that some of them were "call girls" would not be understood as referring to any individual member of the group.

As to the second exception to the rule against group libel -- when circumstances point to a particular individual -- courts have allowed defamation claims where the statement is facially broad, but the context makes it clear that it referred to the plaintiff. For example, Bill Blogger may be able to claim defamation based on the statement "all bloggers who attended the most recent city council meeting payed bribes to the mayor," where Bill is the only blogger who attended the meeting and readers will therefore understand the statement as being a thinly veiled indictment of him.

A company or organization can be a defamation plaintiff. In fact, the largest jury verdict every awarded in a libel case came in a case brought by a business plaintiff.

Note that each state decides what is required to establish defamation, so you should review your state's specific law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for more information.

Fictional Works

A person may claim defamation by a literary or dramatic work intended as fictional if the characters in the work resemble actual persons so closely that it is reasonable for readers or viewers to believe that the character is intended to portray the person in question. A disclaimer that the work is fiction and does not depict any persons living or dead will not automatically foreclose a defamation claim, but it is still a good idea and may be used as evidence as to whether readers or viewers would be reasonable in concluding that it is a depiction of the plaintiff.

 

Last updated on May 6th, 2009

   
 
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