Defamation is when one party harms the reputation of another with a statement – either spoken or written. Spoken defamation is called slander; written defamation is called libel. In order to win a case for defamation, you have to prove that the statement was false, that a third party heard or read the statement, that the defendant was negligent and that you were harmed.
People are defamed all the time, yet lawsuits are rare. Proving damages is perhaps the biggest hurdle. It’s hard to put a price on a damaged reputation. So, in addition to proving injury to your reputation, you generally need to prove actual harm (losing your job, or losing customers to your business). And a small amount of damages isn’t worth a lawsuit. In order to have the type of loss worthy of a lawsuit, the defamation probably needs to be wide spread, meaning a lot of people heard or read the negative statement.
Attorneys tend to be picky when taking these cases because the majority aren’t worth much, if anything. A libel or slander lawsuit is an injury lawsuit, and like most injury cases, attorneys take them on a contingency basis. They don’t get a fee unless you win, so the possible recovery has to be worth the work. And the recovery has to be collectible. If the defendant doesn’t have any money or assets, you (and your attorney) won’t get paid. What this means is that most defamation cases that go anywhere are against corporations that can afford to pay damages or a settlement. It’s probably not worth suing a neighbor who spreads rumors about you in the neighborhood.
So you need widespread, tangible harm, against a party that has the ability to pay. And it helps if the defamation was written and you have the proof. There are other hurdles to consider, as well. Freedom of speech is a big one. The law does not punish people for speaking or writing something just because it hurts someone else. There are a many situations where negative commentary is allowed. For example, if the statement was true, it’s not defamation. Opinion also isn’t defamation. If someone writes a negative review of a business online, giving their opinion, it’s usually not defamatory (unless it includes false statements that aren’t opinion, like “the restaurant is infested with rats”).
The statute of limitations for defamation cases in Illinois is one year from when the libel or slander occurred. This is a fairly short deadline, so if you are wondering whether you have a case worth pursuing, feel free to call for our opinion or to get a referral to an experienced Illinois defamation attorney.