A friend of mine told me that they overheard a neighbor saying untrue and hurtful things about my son at a neighborhood cookout recently. Apparently, the neighbor said my son had stolen items from our neighborhood pool’s snack station and went on to say she wasn’t surprised because he ‘seemed like that type of kid.’ Is there anything legally that I can do about this? Isn’t this libel, slander or defamation?” – Concerned Parent
It is always frustrating when someone makes false statements, especially when it is about you or a loved one. Many people think when someone says something about them that is not true, that they can simply sue the person. However, it is rarely that simple. To understand your rights, it is important to first know the differences between libel, slander and defamation.
There are three main things an individual must prove to win a claim for defamation in North Carolina. First, the statement(s) must be false, and you must prove that the statement is false. Second, you must show that the statement(s) caused material damage; meaning you or your son suffered more than hurt feelings as a result of the statements. If the statement is so inherently damaging to a person’s reputation that damage can be presumed, then you will not need to prove material damage. However, this is a hard burden to reach. Finally, you must prove negligence on the part of your neighbor. That is, the neighbor knew, or should have known, that the statement was not true.
Slander and libel are the two most common types of defamation. Slander is spoken defamation while libel is written defamation. There is a more extreme form of defamation known as defamation per se. This is a specific type of defamation where the statement is so fundamentally insidious that damage to you or your son’s reputation would be assumed. Examples of defamation per se are:
a. Statements that an individual has committed an infamous crime;
b. Statements that an individual suffers from an infectious disease, such as an STD;
c. Statements that discredit a person in their trade or profession, this is more than being unhappy with workmanship;
d. Statements that otherwise subject an individual to ridicule, contempt or disgrace.
Hearing about someone speaking poorly about you or your child is never pleasant, but it is the rare occasion when an individual suffers actual damages based upon bad mouthing from neighbors. Based on the facts of your situation, it will likely be very difficult to prove slander on the part of your neighbor. However, each situation is different, and an attorney experienced with handling such situations can provide you with a more in-depth analysis of your specific circumstances.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and not to be taken as legal advice, nor to establish an attorney-client relationship between the reader and S. Hunt Harris or Weaver | Budd, Attorneys at Law.
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