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Understanding Business Defamation Laws in Florida

by | Jan 27, 2024

Imagine the countless hours and relentless dedication you, as a Florida business owner, have poured into growing your business, investing not only significant time but also substantial financial resources and unwavering effort. Your commitment has borne fruit, transforming your business into the thriving success it stands as today.

Now, picture the distressing scenario of someone deliberately spreading untruths or falsehoods about your business. These falsehoods are not mere words; they possess the power to directly impact your day-to-day operations, creating a ripple effect that extends beyond the bottom line. This constitutes business defamation.

What Is Business Defamation in Florida?

In the state of Florida, business defamation is not taken lightly, and business owners are afforded legal avenues to safeguard their hard-earned reputation. If your business becomes a target of false statements, there exists the possibility to pursue a defamation lawsuit, a recourse aimed at seeking compensation for the damages inflicted upon the company’s image.

Within the legal framework of Florida, both slander and libel are recognized as distinct forms of business defamation.

Slander verses Libel

Slander, characterized by untrue spoken statements, holds the power to harm your business reputation when communicated to third parties. An example could be a disgruntled former employee spreading false rumors about your business practices.

Libel, on the other hand, pertains to false and damaging written statements. For instance, if a blogger publishes a malicious article containing false information about your business, you may have grounds to file a libel lawsuit.

Business owners facing the repercussions of defamation understand the potential ramifications, from a decline in customer loyalty to substantial financial losses. Seeking legal remedies in Florida allows business owners to protect their hard-earned reputation and hold those responsible for spreading false information accountable for the resulting damages.

In the event your business decides to take legal action against defamation, it must do so within the applicable Florida statute of limitations. The state mandates a two-year timeframe to file an action for libel or slander, as outlined in Florida Statute 95.11(4)(g). This emphasizes the urgency for swift action if you believe your business has fallen victim to defamation, underscoring the importance of timely intervention to mitigate the impact on your business’s reputation.

Understanding the Legality of Business Defamation

The landmark case Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 708 (1931), laid the foundation for the understanding that freedom of speech, while a fundamental right, is not absolute, and the state can intervene to address its abuse. The First Amendment does not shield defamatory statements as an exercise of free speech.

In Florida, courts have consistently set a strict standard of proof for defamation plaintiffs, primarily due to the protection afforded by the First Amendment for freedom of speech. Given the complexities involved in business defamation cases, they demand thorough evaluation and a meticulous legal approach.

It is important to note that distinguishing between a negative opinion and a false statement is critical in these cases. While negative opinions may impact a business’s reputation, they do not constitute legally actionable defamation. For example, a company cannot initiate legal action against another person just for expressing dissatisfaction in a review or stating that a product/service is not worth the money.

A recent example of defamation in 2021, Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company took legal action for slander against Fox News for falsely accusing them of changing vote counts and manipulating its machine to favor Joe Biden in the 2020 election, which they claimed ruined their public image.

What Makes a Defamatory Act Legally Actionable?

There are four essential elements, each serving as criteria for an individual, group, or company to be eligible to take legal action against slander or libel aimed at damaging their reputation or character.

  1. False Statements About the Plaintiff
    To pursue legal action for defamation in Florida, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant made a false statement about them. It’s crucial to note that only purported statements of facts are considered in this case, as statements of opinion do not qualify as elements of libel or slander.

    For example, if an employer states, “your work isn’t satisfactory” about their employee, Michael, that is considered a statement of opinion and does not qualify for a defamation claim. However, if the employer, with reckless disregard, claims that Michael steals from the company when he did not, then Michael may have a defamation claim under Florida law.

  2. A False Statement to a Third Party
    When filing a lawsuit for libel, the plaintiff must prove that the untrue statement was either written for the consumption of third-party readers (such as newspaper articles or social media) or communicated verbally to a third party (like a colleague).
  3. Defamatory Statement
    A defamatory statement involves a false accusation made by an individual or entity against a person, tarnishing their reputation and leading the third party to form a reduced or negative opinion about them. The plaintiff may be eligible to file a legal claim against the defendant if they can provide evidence of such statements.
  4. Reputation Damage Due to Defamatory Statements
    Legal actions for defamation tort elements, including slander and libel, come into play when the plaintiff can prove that the falsity of the statement caused harm to their reputation or character. In instances of Florida defamation, where the plaintiff suffers damage to their reputation, there may be no requirement to prove special damages.

These elements collectively form the basis for a defamation claim, emphasizing the importance of demonstrating the impact of false statements on one’s reputation to pursue legal remedies successfully.

So how do you prove reputational damage? The process of proving reputational harm depends on the type of defamation case: defamation per se and defamation per quod.

Defamation Per Se

This occurs when a false statement causes clear harm to a person’s reputation. In Florida, certain false claims are recognized as defamatory per se. These include:

  • You have a disease, such as AIDS or HIV.
  • You committed specific felonies.
  • You’ve engaged in conduct or possess a characteristic fundamentally incompatible with your business, profession, or office.
  • You’re an unchaste person or someone engaged in illicit or extramarital sexual activity.
  • Subjects you to hatred, ridicule, or distrust.

Defamation Per Quod

In these cases, there’s no presumption of injury. You must actively prove that the false statement genuinely harmed your reputation. Unlike defamation per se, no automatic presumption benefits the plaintiff, requiring concrete evidence of reputational harm.

What Damages Can You Receive from Defamation?

In both per se and per quod defamation cases, you have the right to seek damages for “economic” and “noneconomic” injuries.

  • Economic injuries typically involve tangible losses like medical bills and lost wages. For example, if defamatory statements result in your job loss and subsequent inability to find new employment, you can recover lost wages and benefits.
  • Noneconomic harms encompass emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life. Although challenging to quantify in monetary terms, these damages can still be compensated, with an experienced defamation lawyer helping determine their value.

In exceptional cases involving extreme or reckless behavior, punitive damages might be available. It’s important to note that Florida law generally limits punitive damages to the higher of three times your compensatory damages (combined economic and noneconomic damages) or $500,000 (Fla. Stat. § 768.73(1)(a) (2023).)

As defamation per se inherently causes evident reputational harm, Florida law may award “presumed” damages in certain cases. These presumed damages are typically nominal, such as $1 or $100, and can be granted even if you can’t prove specific economic or noneconomic losses. It’s essential to note that presumed damages are not applicable when suing a media defendant (See Mid-Florida Television Co. v. Boyles, 467 So.2d 282 (Fla. 1985).)

The Campbell Law Group’s Expertise in Protecting Your Business Reputation

If you believe your business has been a victim of defamation, it is advisable to consult with a knowledgeable attorney in Florida specializing in business and commercial law. The Campbell Law Group, well-versed in defamation law, can assist you in legal matters, offering insights into your rights and options. Whether addressing false statements from a competitor or a disgruntled employee having an experienced attorney can be advantageous.

The Campbell Law Group offers support to businesses across Florida, understanding the diverse business landscape. They provide legal representation, navigating defamation laws and local court systems. Their services meet the needs of businesses and individuals in various industries and regions of Florida, focusing on protecting reputations and seeking resolution for any harm caused by defamatory statements.

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