Your reputation and good name are valuable assets, and false and disparaging statements made about you or your business within your community can be extremely damaging. In Georgia, a person or business can pursue a defamation claim when another person spreads false statements without having privilege to do so. It is important to act quickly because in Georgia you must file a defamation lawsuit within one year of the alleged defamatory statement.
Defamation includes oral and written statements. Generally, an injured party must show another person made a false statement of fact to a third party, such as family, friends, customers, or on social media, and either knew or should have known the statement was false and would cause harm. True statements or fair criticism will not support a defamation claim even if negative and harmful.
Slander (oral defamation) occurs when a person (1) imputes a crime to another, (2) claims someone has a contagious disorder or committed a “debasing act which may exclude him from society”; or (3) makes charges against someone in reference to his “trade, office, or profession” intending to harm his or her reputation. O.C.G.A. § 51-5-4(a). Georgia law infers damages from these statements, which are known as “defamation per se,” meaning you don’t have to prove these statements caused damage. Slander may also occur when a person makes disparaging statements about someone, from which special damages naturally flow. These other statements require proof of special damages. O.C.G.A. § 51-5-4(b).
Libel occurs when a “false and malicious” defamatory statement that would tend to injure the person’s reputation and expose him or her to contempt, hatred or ridicule is made in print, writing, pictures, or signs. O.C.G.A. § 51-5-1(a). The statement must be published, which occurs when a statement is made in writing to anyone other than the person who is the subject. O.C.G.A. § 51-1-1(b).
Defenses to a Defamation Claim
Truth is always a complete defense. O.C.GA. § 51–5–6. Additionally, a statement that reflects an opinion or subjective assessment generally cannot support a defamation claim, as the statement cannot be proven untrue. An exception lies when an opinion can reasonably be interpreted, in its full context, to state or imply defamatory facts.
Also generally a person will not be liable for statements that are considered privileged. O.C.G.A. § 51-5-7 deems the following statements privileged under Georgia law:
Statements made in good faith in the performance of a public duty;
Statements made in good faith in the performance of a legal or moral private duty;
Statements made with a good faith intent on the part of the speaker to protect his or her interest in a matter in which it is concerned;
Statements made in good faith as part of an act in furtherance of the person's or entity's right of petition or free speech under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia in connection with an issue of public interest or concern, as defined in subsection (c) of Code Section 9-11-11.1;
Fair and honest reports of the proceedings of legislative or judicial bodies;
Fair and honest reports of court proceedings;
Comments of counsel, fairly made, on the circumstances of a case in which he or she is involved and on the conduct of the parties in connection therewith;
Truthful reports of information received from any arresting officer or police authorities; and
Comments upon the acts of public men or public women in their public capacity and with reference thereto.
However, most privileges can be defeated by proving a person made the statement with actual malice (i.e. knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth). A defendant may also raise a statute of limitations defense if a defamation claim is not brought within one year.
Higher Standard for Statements About Public Figures
A private person bringing a defamation claim only has to prove the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the defamatory statement. However, a public figure must prove actual malice, meaning the defendant published a false statement knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Public figures include celebrities, government officials, and political figures. The actual malice standard also applies where a private person becomes a “limited purpose public figure”, meaning they are well-known and recognizable in the context of a specific public controversy and the statement at issue relates to that controversy.
Statements that constitute defamation per se are considered so egregious they will always be defamatory and assumed to cause harm without need for proof. As noted above, these include false accusations of crimes or immorality, having a contagious disease, and statements referring to the trade, office, or profession of another person calculated to cause harm. For statements against a business, Georgia courts have adopted the “single instance test.” For example, accusing a business of a mistake or failure on a single occasion may not be defamation per se, but accusing the business of generally being unprofessional and unfit to do business would constitute defamation per se. Cottrell v. Smith, 299 Ga. 517, 523 (2016).
For other defamatory statements, a plaintiff must prove harm resulting from the statement. Evidence of harm may include a loss of customers, loss of a job or promotion, lost business opportunities, damaged relationships, or pain and suffering (including mental or physical health problems). A plaintiff may also pursue punitive damages. The amount of damages will depend on the nature of the defamatory statement and to whom the statement was made.
This is just an overview of the general elements and defenses for a defamation claim in Georgia. If you believe you have been the victim of defamatory statements, or have been accused of defamation, you should speak to a lawyer as soon as possible to discuss your rights or potential defenses. You can contact The Ewing Firm for an initial consultation to discuss your matter and how our firm may assist you as an advocate.