With the advent of social media, Americans are more connected to each other (and to others around the world) than ever before. However, these connections and interactions aren't always positive. What should you do if you've been the victim of false or malicious statements online? Can you require the offender to retract his or her words, or should your efforts instead be focused on cleaning up the mess? Read on to learn more about your legal options.
What laws govern statements made on social media sites?
Although the terms libel, slander, and defamation are often used interchangeably, they have very different legal meanings. Libel is a defamatory statement made in printed or written form, while slander is a defamatory statement made aloud. Defamation refers to the overarching area of tort law that includes both libel and slander. If you've been the victim of false statements online, it's likely you would pursue a libel claim.
However, determining who -- and how -- to sue can be tricky. In some cases, the person making the statements may be easily identified, or could be someone already known to you. In other cases, the person may have taken steps to mask his or her identity or location and could be difficult to track down and prove as the source of the libelous statements. In these situations, you may instead have a remedy against the website host or internet service provider if you can show that these entities knew (or should have known) their sites were hosting libelous comments.
Because the laws governing libel vary slightly from state to state, you'll want to hire a personal injury attorney who specializes in defamation cases. In general, you'll need to sue in either the state in which you live, the state in which the person who made the statements lives, or the state in which the internet service provider or website host is headquartered. Your attorney will be able to help you determine where to file.
What elements will you have to prove to win a libel claim?
In order to establish the defendant's legal liability for his or her libelous statements, you'll need to prove four elements:
- The defendant communicated something about you to others;
- This communication was negligently made public by a publisher;
- The statement made was false; and
- You suffered actual damage as a result of the false statement.
What damages are available for social media defamation?
As with other types of personal injury cases, if you prove (by a preponderance of the evidence) that the defendant is guilty of libel, you should be able to recover all costs associated with the defamatory statements. In some cases, this can even include the legal costs you incurred while filing the lawsuit.
You'll need to establish (or at least reliably estimate) your costs before a final judgment can be issued. For example, if the comments online were viewed by your employer and caused you to lose your job, you may be able to recover back wages and other damages associated with this economic loss. However, you'll need to provide evidence to the court and to the other party clearly indicating your losses.
The judge should also have discretion to assess punitive damages against the defendant. These damages are not based on any economic losses you've suffered, but are instead intended to punish the defendant for his or her wrongdoing and to discourage similar behavior in the future.
Although a monetary judgment associated with medical and legal expenses is generally tax-free, you may be taxed on other portions of your judgment or settlement. If you receive funds to compensate you for the loss of a job, these funds will be taxed -- just as your income from the job would be. Punitive damages are also taxed at your highest marginal rate. For more information or to find out if you have a case, contact an experienced personal injury attorney in your area.