Even though the bulk of my work is New York personal injury litigation, I often get asked to represent plaintiffs in defamation (slander and libel) claims. The callers soliciting my services are usually livid that so-and-so made disparaging remarks about them, all lies. They are outraged. Of course they are. A good reputation besmirched is a terrible thing.
Still, it is one thing to be angry, and another to embark on the long and expensive journey of civil litigation. I usually have to bill a client by the hour, rather than on a contingency fee basis, in defamation suits. That’s because liability insurance won’t cover the defamer — we have to reach into his or her pocket to collect on a judgment. And most defamers have little or no money to go after. So collecting on the judgment is very uncertain. And there are usually other uncertainties: Can we prove the statement was a lie, and if so, one that fits the narrow category of lies you can sue for? For example, if a client says of me, “my lawyer is an idiot”, that may be a lie, but it expresses an opinion, and therefore I can’t sue for it. But if the client said, “my lawyer is stealing from me”, I can sue because it states an alleged fact, not an opinon, and one that — if true — would constitute a crime.
My first question in helping the would-be client decide whether to pursue a defamation case usually is, “can you prove you were ECONOMICALLY harmed”? That’s because most defamation cases are not worth the trouble or cost of bringing unless you can prove that the lies actually caused financial harm, for example loss of business or lawyer’s fees defending criminal charges.