Posted By Alan Sackrin on April 14, 2016
Under Florida law the consequences for defaming someone’s character can be very serious. Our law allows the victim of libel or slander to file a lawsuit for money damages to compensate for the harm that they have experienced.
Libel defames someone’s character in a writing; slander defames character by a spoken word. This behavior is considered an illegal act in Florida (see Chapter 836 of Florida Statutes) and significant damages can be awarded. In fact, in some instances, millions of dollars in damage awards have been paid to defamation plaintiffs here.
This is because punitive damages can be assessed in Florida defamation claims. Punitive damages are those that the plaintiff does not have to prove with receipts, accounting experts, and the like. Instead, they are exemplary damages that Florida law allows to be awarded in order to punish the wrongdoer, making an example of them, thereby sending a message to others that this type of act is not tolerated in the Sunshine State.
Examples of Defamation Victims Who Sued and Won in Florida Courts
It’s impossible to describe all the possible scenarios where someone in Florida can be hurt by a written statement (libel) or by something someone said (slander) that defames their character. Some cases are so blatant that settlements are reached long before any lawsuit is filed.
Others go to court and settle; others get tried; and some get appealed to reviewing courts after a verdict is rendered. From them, we have court case precedent on the books that provide lessons on how serious defamation is viewed in Florida law.
These cases demonstrate how victims of libel or slander have found justice after filing a defamation lawsuit here. Here are a few interesting examples:
1. Destefano v. Adventist Health System Sunbelt, 973 So.2d 492 – (Improper Reduction of A Jury Award)
In this case, the Florida appeals court not only affirmed the judgment that the plaintiff was a victim of defamation, and upheld a punitive damage award of $1 Million, but it increased his compensatory damage award to $1 Million. Here’s what happened:
This action originated in Orlando, Florida, where Lawrence Destefano sued Rollins Bedford Corporation d/b/a Sunbelt Healthcare and Subacute Center (”Rollins”), among other defendants, for libel and slander.
Mr. Destefano’s mother had been a patient at Rollins in between hospital stays at a Florida hospital and another health care facility in Orlando. She suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, and was in need of hospital care because of an infection in a wound on her foot. She was very ill.
The cause of Mrs. Destefano’s foot infection was key here: Mr. Destefano had a note from a Rollins employee that confirmed his mother had been neglected, and that improper medical care was the reason she had the infection.
That would be proof of malpractice, a “smoking gun” of sorts. It would be something that Rollins, as well as the other health care providers, would find threatening and dangerous. So, how to defend against claims of medical neglect?
First, they apparently tried to get it back. When asked about the note, Mr. Destefano refused to turn it over to Rollins.
So, other tactics seem to have been instituted. Mr. Destefano would later discover that his mother’s medical records were filled with notations that discredited him and his character. If they were believed to be true, then his credibility as a plaintiff would be harmed.
What did these notes say?
Specifically, there were handwritten notes in his mother’s medical charts that he had engaged in “inappropriate sexual conduct” with his mother. Details were provided that included descriptions of the son “inappropriately kissing” his mother and “inappropriately” laying with her on her hospital bed.
And, the statements were spoken; these statements were also spoken to hospital employees, the Orlando Police Department, an elder abuse hotline, and the Department of Children and Families (elder abuse agency).
Sadly, Mrs. Destefano died. And, after her death Mr. Destefano sued both individually and as the personal representative of his mother’s estate for defamation (as well as other things).
He was an angry man. He went so far as to picket in front of the Rollins facility, decrying what he believed they had done to him as a smear campaign. His picket signs gave details on what had been said and written about him.
The jury believed the son was a victim of libel and slander. They awarded him $1,000,000 in punitive damages and $1,000,000 in compensatory damages.
However, the jury reduced his compensatory award by half because the defendants argued that by putting his complaints on those picket signs, Destefano contributed damage to his own character. The appeals court didn’t agree. The self-publication was deemed irrelevant to what Rollins had done in the first place. He received the entire award of two million dollars.
This story begins with a lawsuit filed against Zahid Ramlawi by Miami Columbus, Inc., and three other companies seeking the return of personal property as well as the repayment of some loans and return of what was alleged to be excess salaries. These companies were owned and operated by members of the Dahlawi family.
Ramlawi defended against these claims by filing a counterclaim back at the companies, arguing that there had been a breach of the partnership agreement he had with them, as well as defamation. In his counterclaim, he asked for salaries to be paid to him as well as severance and vacation benefits, along with the monies he had put into the companies and for defamation damages. As part of his counterclaim, he sued Dahlawi’s attorney, Daniel Lipsig (”Lipsig”), for among other things, slander. He also sued one of the companies’ employees, Nasim Rahman (”Rahman”) for defamation damages.
The jury trial took almost 5 months. Ramlawi won on his business counterclaims, and key here, on his defamation claims. It was found by the jury that he had been defamed on 3 separate occasions. He was awarded $10,000,000 in punitive damages and $175,000 against each defendant in compensatory damages.
How was Ramlawi’s character defamed?
It was found that Lipsig, Rahman, and two of the principals of the companies, Amin Dahlawi and Hassan Dahlawi, “falsely and maliciously” called Ramlawi all kinds of bad things, like:
- Embezzler; and
- Poor businessman.
They also said that he took “kickbacks.” And they didn’t whisper among themselves, either.
These statements were made many times and in many places, including “throughout the City of Miami.” Lipsig was said to have made these defaming statements on the instructions of his clients, the Dahlawis.
The jury held that three statements were defamatory:
1. a statement made by Lipsig to Tony Angelos, where Angelos was told that Ramlawi had taken money from the companies and that was why the Dahlawis and Ramlawi had “parted company”;
2. a statement made by Rahman to Mr. Gerald Zadikoff that Ramlawi was a “thief;” and
3. a statement made by Amin to Mr. Gerald Zadikoff that Ramlawi had misappropriated company money for his personal use.
On appeal, the Florida court pointed out the following in support of Mr. Ramlawi’s defamation awards:
First, in Florida law a defamatory statement does not need to be accounted for “verbatim” to state a cause of action for slander. Edward L. Nezelek, Inc. v. Sunbeam Television Corp., 413 So.2d 51, 55 (Fla. 3d DCA 1982).
Second, if a statement implies the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts, then it’s illegal defamation. An oral communication is slander and grounds for defamation damages if people hearing the comment “`… might have taken it to mean that the plaintiff was a person with whom commercial relations were undesirable.'” Wolfson v. Kirk, 273 So.2d 774, 778 (Fla. 4th DCA 1973)), rev. denied, 718 So.2d 170 (Fla.1998).
Third, under Florida law, truth “is only a defense to defamation when the truth has been coupled with good motive.” Boyles v. Mid-Florida Television Corp., 431 So.2d 627 (Fla. 5th DCA 1983).
3. Coton v. Televised Visual X-Ography, Inc., 740 F.Supp 2d 1299 (M.D. Fla. 2010) – (Defamation By Implication)
In Florida, there is a basis for damages under the cause of action “defamation by implication.” An example of this happened in the case where Lara Jade Coton sued for defamation as well as copyright infringement among other things because her photograph appeared on the packaging of a porno film called “Body Magic.” She won.
The pornographic movie “Body Magic” was a product of defendants Televised Visual X-Ography, Inc., and Robert Augustus Burge. Neither defendant bothered to show up on the day of trial, and after Ms. Coton presented her evidence, the trial court judge held in her favor.
On appeal, she won as well. Here’s her story.
Lara Jade Coton was a professional photographer from Great Britain. She began her professional career as a photographer at the age of 17 years, when she established her own company in England. By the age of 20 years (at the trial), her work had been featured in magazines and she had been hired to photograph products for advertising sales campaigns. She also sold self-portraits to clients as a licensing fee (she kept her copyright).
One of these self-portraits was of Ms. Coton in formal attire, at age 14, posing in front of a window. She described it to the court as “the picture of a girl playing dress-up.” It was titled “No Easy Way Out,” and placed online at a photographers’ online forum, where photographers sell their work as well as get feedback and critiques from their peers.
Ms. Coton discovered that her photograph, the self-portrait “No Easy Way Out,” was being used to market a porno movie. She did not give her permission for this use of her photo. She learned about it from the online photographers’ forum, when an anonymous message was sent to her informing her of its use and giving her the hyperlink to the film site where she could see the packaging for the movie “Body Magic” for herself.
Ms. Coton filed her lawsuit against Burge, Televised Visual X-Ography, Inc. (“TVX”), and other companies that were allegedly distributors or retailers of the Body Magic DVD. Among her other causes of action, the court found that she had proven the defendants to be liable for defamation by implication.
What is Defamation by Implication?
“Defamation by Implication” is an intentional tort recognized in Florida. See Jews for Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp, 997 So.2d 1098, 1108 (Fla.2008). It is defined as a defaming of character that happens from what is implied when a defendant (1) juxtaposes a series of facts so as to imply a defamatory connection between them; or (2) creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts.
It was held that Ms. Coton was a victim of defamation by implication when the defendants’ used her self-portrait on the packaging of their pornographic movie. In doing so, there was the improper suggestion or implication that Ms. Coton had either participated in the pornography or that she was willingly associated with it (or the porno industry).
She sought and won $100,000 as “fair compensation for the humiliation she suffered as a result of having her photograph used in connection with the `Body Magic’ pornographic movie and related marketing materials.”
Are You a Victim of Libel or Slander?
If you believe that you have been hurt by someone and your character defamed either by something that was said (slander) or written (libel), then you may have a claim for damages that can be filed under Florida law.
Both actual, or compensatory, damages may be available to you as well as punitive, or punishment, damages (note, punitive damages are difficult to recover). Also, more than one defendant may be liable to you for defamation.
Florida law is not quite the same as the law in other states regarding protecting Florida from libel or slander. While legal protections exist here, it is important to evaluate your specific situation to determine if you can prove both liability against the defendant as well as supporting the amounts for the damages you seek. Having an experienced Florida personal injury lawyer to help you can be invaluable here, both in finding justice and in repairing the harm your personal or business reputation has suffered as a result of the defamatory statements.
A good piece of advice if you believe you have a defamation claim, is to at least speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer to learn about some of the issues that can arise with these claims, including the type of evidence needed to prove a claim and the type and amount of damages you can recover. Most personal injury lawyers, like Alan Sackrin, will offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person) to answer your questions.
- Defamation Per Se; When Libel or Slander Is So Bad, Do You Need Evidence of Damages Before Punitive Damages Can Be Awarded?
- What Damages Are Recoverable In A Defamation of Character Claim?
Do you have questions or comments? Then please feel free to send Alan an email or call him now at (954) 458-8655.