Florida Defamation Lawsuits: What are The Defenses to Libel and Slander Claims Seeking Damages Under Florida Law?
Posted By Alan Sackrin on May 7, 2013
When considering whether or not to file a lawsuit for defamation in the State of Florida, careful consideration must be made about (1) the testimony and documents available to prove the claim under state law, (2) the evidence to prove the damages being sought, as well as (3) the defenses that might be asserted once the case is filed.
If the other side has a strong defense, then careful analysis must be made before anything is filed in the courthouse. In the balance, should the case be filed? Viewing a defamation case from the other side: if you have been sued, then in the balance, do you have legal defenses strong enough to win at trial?
Defenses to Defamation
There are several defenses to a lawsuit filed in Florida courts for defamation (libel or slander). These include:
1. Missing the Deadline to File the Lawsuit Bars the Claim
No one has an unlimited amount of time to file a civil action for damages; state legislatures pass laws that set time deadlines for claims to be filed as lawsuits, for among other reasons, to make sure that witness’s memories will be reasonably fresh and pertinent paperwork will be available.
These laws are called “statutes of limitations.”
The Florida Statute of Limitations for filing a civil lawsuit seeking damages for defamation sets the deadline for filing a defamation lawsuit in Florida at two (2) years. See, Florida Statute 95.11(4)(g).
If the party seeking to file a defamation lawsuit in Florida files the case after this time period has passed, it does not matter how formidable the evidence may be — or how horrid the defamation itself: the limitations deadline will absolutely BAR the claim.
2. Truth is an Absolute Defense
The United State Supreme Court set this defense in stone decades ago: truth is a defense to a libel or slander action in the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 US 254 (1964). This means that the plaintiff needs to have a strong set of facts to establish libel or slander with evidence of the defamatory statements and proof that these statements are substantially false.
However, they need not be 100% false: the courts have created the “substantial truth doctrine” in defamation lawsuits to explain the amount of evidence needed to defend against a defamation case, as well as to prove one. The “substantial truth doctrine” states that if the “gist” of the statement at issue is true, then that will be enough to defend against a defamation claim for damages. See, Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496, 517 (1991).
3. Anti-SLAPP Laws
Across the country, state legislatures have passed laws to protect people from lawsuits that are filed with the intent to thwart someone exercising their free speech – even when the plaintiff knows that the case is not winnable in the long run. There are times when the strategy of burdening a person or an organization with a cumbersome and expensive defamation lawsuit seems smart because it can distract or financially drain them from public outcry or public criticism. These are known as bars against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or “anti-SLAPP” statutes.
- In Florida, for example, there are Anti-SLAPP laws in place to protect citizens who are protesting from being thwarted by a defamation lawsuit filed by a governmental unit. Florida Statute 768.295 is more commonly known as the “Citizen Participation in Government Act.”
- Another Florida Anti-SLAPP law appears in Florida Statutes 720.304(4), where homeowners are dealing with homeowners’ associations.
These are not the only defenses that may be asserted in a defamation case; however, these are three of the most common arguments made against a defamation claim. Each case is different, and damages in libel and slander actions can be high. Parties on each side of a defamation case must move forward with care.
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