Under the law, a person or business may not make false statements that injure and/or harm the reputation of another person or entity. Legally, this is called “defamation” and, if you defame another, you can be sued and held liable for money damages to the victim of your defamation. Under Michigan law, a statement or communication is also considered defamatory if it tends to deter third persons from associating or dealing with the person or entity that has been defamed. False statements can be made in writing or via an oral statement. Legally, the former is called libel and the latter is called slander.
Defamation law has become particularly important in the internet age when many feel free to vent their personal frustrations by making false statements in consumer reviews, blog posts, via tweets and instagram uploads. But false statements on the internet can lead to litigation.
In most jurisdictions, defamation claims are divided into two types — defamation per quod and defamation per se. In Michigan, the difference turns on whether the victim of defamation is required to prove actual damages, injury, or harm from the false and defamatory statement(s). For example, in Michigan, to win a defamation case, the plaintiff (the person bringing the lawsuit) must provide evidence of four legal elements:
- That the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning plaintiff
- The communication was published to a third party without privilege
- The fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and
- Either (a) the statement is actionable irrespective of special or actual harm/injury (defamation per se) or (b) the statement’s publication caused special or actual harm caused to the victim (defamation per quod).
Under modern Michigan law, defamation per se involves only two types of statements — words imputing a lack of chastity to any female or male or words imputing the commission of a criminal offense. See Mich. C.L. §600.2911. For example, if an assistant manager of a Big Boy Restaurant, while other diners are present, loudly accuses certain patrons of being at the restaurant the day before and leaving without paying, the assistant manager has spoken words that impute a criminal offense. That is defamation per se and the victims do not need to provide evidence of special or actual harm/injury. See Burden v. Elias Bros. Big Boy Restaurants, 613 NW 2d 378 (Mich. Court of Appeals 2000).
In general, defamation per quod is any other type of defamation. For example, if a person is erroneously accused of being involved in an automobile accident by an insurance company, the false statement is defamation per quod. It is NOT defamation per se because the false statement did not involve words that imputed criminal conduct or lack of chastity. As noted, to win a defamation case involving per quod defamation, the victim must prove actual harm or damages. That is what happened in the case of Hall v. Citizens Ins. Co., 141 Mich. App. 676 (Mich. Court of Appeals 1985). In that case, the victim of defamation was named Patricia Hall. She had automobile insurance with Citizens Insurance, Co. (“Citizens”). But Citizens had also issued an insurance policy to a different Patricia Hall. There was an accident in 1973 involving the other Patricia Hall. But, Citizens sued the wrong Patricia Hall. Despite her many efforts to clear up the mistake, Citizens eventually won a default judgment and began garnishing Ms. Hall’s paychecks.
Ms. Hall eventually countersued against Citizens for defamation and other legal claims. After trial, the jury awarded Ms. Hall $1,500 on her defamation claim. On appeal, Citizens argued that Ms. Hall had not proven special or actual harm. However, the Court of Appeals disagreed. The court noted that “actual harm” includes not only out-of-pocket losses, but also damages for mental and emotional suffering. Ms. Hall had presented evidence of her emotional suffering and that was sufficient for her defamation claim. For more information, contact the trusted internet lawyers at Revision Legal at 231-714-0100.