Can a person be held liable for simply repeating defamatory statements that someone else published? The answer is maybe. It depends on the circumstances surrounding the original publication and when and how it was repeated or republished. Determination of damages and from who they are sought is based on the point at which the plaintiff suffered harm.
Who is Liable?
A person who is privileged to repeat a statement—for example, a person testifying in a court of law or a reporter relying on a public document or public official—is not liable for the any harm resulting from repeating a defamatory statement. Likewise, if the repetition is authorized by the originator of the defamatory statement, the person repeating the statement is not liable. In both of these situations the originator of the statement would be liable to the person who was defamed. Williams v. Fulks, 113 Ark. 82, 167 S.W. 93 (1914); Stonekink v. Briggs, 254 Cal.App.2d 563, 62 Cal.Rptr. 249 (1967).
If defamation is repeated without privilege and without permission, the person who repeated the statement and caused the harm is liable. Frommoethelydo v. Fire Ins. Exhange (1986) 42 Cal.3d 208, 217. “A false statement is not less libelous because it is the repetition of rumor or gossip or of statements or allegations that others have made concerning the matter.” Ray v. Citizen-News Co. (1936) 14 Cal.App.2d 6, 8-9. In fact, each repetition of a defamatory statement may be considered a separate publication and, therefore, a separate cause of action even if the source is identified. Di Giorgio Corp. v. Valley Labor Citizen (1968) 260 Cal.App.2d 268.
The person who originated the statement is not liable to the plaintiff if he or she did not intend for the material to be repeated and, based on the manner of distribution/publication, had no reason to believe it would be. Waite v. Stockgrowers’ Credit Corp. 63 N.D. 763, 249 N.W. 910 (1933).
However, if the originator distributed the material in such a way as to give the impression he was okay with the information being shared with many people, he too would be liable. Likewise if the material was published in such a way that reasonable people would expect it to be repeated, even if that was not the originator’s intention, he would be liable for damages.
Special Harm/Damages For Repetition of Defamatory Statements
This special application of this rule allows for action when the special harm resulting from the repetition is what makes the defamation actionable. In other words, if an originator publishes a slander, which is not actionable if special harm does not result from the publication, and repetition of that slander results in special harm, the plaintiff now has an action from the defamation. If the person who repeated the defamation has privilege, the originator is liable to the plaintiff, not the person who repeated it.
If the defamation is actionable per se, the plaintiff may seek both special and general damages relative to the harm caused by the defamatory statement.
This rule applies when harm is caused because of the negative impact of a rumor, as well as harm resulting from a single person’s specific reaction to a defamatory statement.
Repetition of defamatory statements and the liability resulting from it can be complicated. The experienced attorneys at Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA can help you determine how this rule applies to your situation. Call us at (216) 831-0042.