DEFAMATION OF A PLAINTIFF
A lawsuit for defamation has the following basic elements: (1) making a false statement (2) about a person (3) to others, and (4) actual damages (if the harm to the person is not apparent). There is a fifth element when the person is a public official or public figure. The person who made the statement has to have made it with a known or reckless disregard of the truth. This article discusses the second element, about a person. The person who brings a lawsuit is commonly known as the plaintiff. Accordingly, in a lawsuit for defamation, the defamatory statement must be reasonably understood to be of and concerning the plaintiff.
Sometimes it is easy to prove that a defamatory statement is of the plaintiff because the statement mentions to whom it refers (e.g., “the chief financial officer of our company is a crook”).
Sometimes it is difficult to prove that a defamatory statement is of the plaintiff because the statement does not mention to whom it refers (e.g., “the person who didn’t come to the meeting embezzled the money”). Where it is not clear to whom a statement refers, the plaintiff must prove additional facts to show that the statement referred to the plaintiff (e.g., the person was suppose to come to the meeting but didn’t was X).
Defamation of a Group?
To be a defamatory statement, a statement must be reasonably understood to refer to a particular plaintiff. A large group of people cannot be legally defamed because a false statement about a large group of people cannot be reasonably understood to refer to a particular plaintiff. Simply put, if a false statement is made about a large group (e.g., “all politicians are liars”), it cannot be reasonably determined who in particular is being referred to. Almost any statement can be true of some members of a large group. As a result, a statement about a large group is viewed as an expression of an opinion and not a statement of fact.
A small group of people can be legally defamed because a false statement made about a small group of people can be reasonably understood to refer to each member of the group.
Neiman-Marcus v. Lait
A defamation lawsuit was decided in 1952 wherein the defendants wrote a book that stated that most of the 25 salesmen at a particular store were “fairies” and that most of the 382 saleswomen at the store were “prostitutes.” The court ruled that the 25 salesmen could sue for defamation, because the statement that they were “fairies” could be defamatory as to each salesman. The court ruled that the 382 saleswomen could not sue for defamation, because the statement that they were “prostitutes” could not be defamatory as to each saleswoman. What mattered was the size of each group, not what was said about them.