Slander is the legal term for a spoken statement that damages someone's reputation. Slander is an intentional tort, a civil wrong rather than a criminal one. Each state sets its own rules for slander, so you will want to confirm things in your state, but the following is a general discussion of how to sue for slander in small claims court on your own (pro se).
What Do You Have to Prove in a Slander Case?
When we talk about what you have to prove in a tort case, we refer to the elements of the offense. The aspects of slander require you to verify that the defendant:
Published an oral or spoken statement about you - In this case, it means someone else heard it. Because it's harder to get rid of a written notice, most courts, juries, and insurance companies will consider libel more harmful than slander.
That was false - The information must be false; the truth is an absolute defense against a slander claim. Opinions aren't slander, and truth can't generally injure you. Some cases involve the public exposure of private facts in a way that can damage your reputation. But, in the simplest terms, it has to be a false statement about you.
And injured you in a way that monetary damages can cure - Generally, you have to prove that the defendant's spoken statement damaged you. Maybe you lost your job, or your landlord kicked you out. However, if the false spoken statement relates to your profession or business, claims that you committed a crime of moral turpitude, implies that you were unchaste, or suffer from a loathsome disease, you do not have to prove damages. The court will instruct the jury to presume that those statements damaged you. The last three may sound very stuffy and old-fashioned, but they mean that the court will presume you were damaged if the slander hurt your business or your moral character.
For which the defendant had no privilege
Sometimes the law permits a false oral statement to be made because of the circumstances in which it was made. If the statement was true, or an opinion, or you had committed to the publication, you will not be successful in a defamation claim. Sometimes a retraction will also bar your recovery.
Absolute privileges are situations where the person making the statement can say whatever they like, and you cannot object. This usually occurs in judicial proceedings, legislative sessions by legislators, political broadcasts or speeches, or comments by high government officials. Note that it is narrowly interpreted. If a legislator defames you on the floor of the House, shame on the legislator. You can sue if the legislator makes a false spoken statement in the hallway after the session.
Qualified privileges mean that the person who made the statement had some right to say it. Here are some occasions:
- Governmental reports of proceedings
- Statements by lower-level government officials
- Testimony during legislative hearings
- Statements made in self-defense or to warn others
- Some comments made by a former employer to a potential new employer
- Book or film reviews.
The employer privilege is most well-known since, because of it, your employer probably won't do much beyond confirming your employment dates, either on the phone (slander) or in writing (libel).
How to File
To file a case in small claims court, you must file a complaint stating the above elements. Eventually, you will be asked to submit evidence of your claims to the court (not with the initial filing).
Some may be documents, and some may be testimony by people involved, such as witnesses to the defamatory statement. You can do this with an attorney or pro-se.
However, some states do not permit you to use an attorney in small claims court. And the amounts you can recover may be too small for your adequate recovery.
If you decide to proceed on your own, filing and service companies like LegalPine and Dispute can help you ensure that you meet all the filing requirements for your case. Dispute assists with document filing and case organization so you can file stress-free.
Filing small claims is inexpensive compared to other courts but can be difficult to manage. So filing with Dispute is a great way to outsource the work and file stress-free.