July 7th, 2022

What is Defamation?

The Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial certainly brought the legal issue of defamation into the public spotlight. Basically, Depp filed a lawsuit against his ex-wife, Heard, accusing her of defaming him in a Washington Post op-ed. While the op-ed did not mention her husband by name, it discussed alleged abuse she suffered before and during her marriage to Depp. Depp denied all allegations of abuse and claimed the allegations severely impacted his career. In the end, the jury agreed. Consequently, the Virginia jury awarded Depp $10.35 million in damages because Heard acted with actual malice. Heard did file a counterclaim. The same jury awarded her $2 million after Depp’s attorney said her claims were a hoax. Now that this drama is behind “us,” let’s take a closer look at defamation law.

Defamation is not just a cause of action for the rich and famous. With the ever-increasing presence of social media and our reliance on internet reviews, defamation is a real consideration when you engage in online activity. While it typically stands to reason that “the truth will set you free,” making false claims in an online review or spreading unsubstantiated rumors about someone on social media can find you in a court room defending your actions. That being said, the best way to make sure your online activity is guilt free is to understand exactly what defamation is.

In short, defamation is a statement, written or spoken, that hurts the reputation of another person. Written defamation is known as libel, while spoken defamation is known as slander. Although each state, including Pennsylvania, has nuance to its defamation laws to successfully prove a claim of defamation, the plaintiff must show:

  1. The statement is indeed false.
  2. The statement was made to another third party (i.e., The Washington Post), and not just the plaintiff.
  3. The defendant’s fault rises to the level of negligence. As the jury said in the Depp case, Heard acted with actual malice. This is a phrase commonly used to show negligence in cases involving high-profile people.
  4. The plaintiff suffered some sort of damage or harm because of the statement.

The jury found that Johnny Depp proved all 4 of these elements and ruled in his favor. Just like in the Depp v. Heard case, if the plaintiff can prove the 4 elements above, they could be awarded significant damages. Most likely, the plaintiff will be awarded compensatory damages. As the name infers, these damages compensate the victim for actual or future losses. These damages include lost wages and employee benefits. Also, it can include any out-of-pocket expenses such as related medical bills. The jury awarded Depp $10M in compensatory damages.

Punitive damages are the other type of potential damages in a defamation case. Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defamer. They are also used to prevent others from being hurt by the same or similar actions. The jury awarded Depp $5M in punitive damages. However, the judge reduced the amount to $350,000 under a Virginia state law.

If you have been accused of defamation or are a victim of defamation, we can help. In the meantime, feel free to reach out to us with any questions.

The content found in this resource is for informational reference use only and is not considered legal advice. Laws at all levels of government change frequently and the information found here may be or become outdated. It is recommended to consult your attorney for the most up-to-date information regarding current laws and legal matters.