Defamation & the Horse Industry
Everyone deserves the right to have their reputations protected from false statements. This right is often of great importance and value in the horse industry. With the relatively small size of the horse industry, one’s reputation is often his or her best asset. The law of defamation grants each person protection of their valuable reputation.
Defamation can occur in many different situations. In some cases, when a business relationship comes to a close, the parties involved do not end of the best of terms. Also, competition can also bring out the worst in people. Often hurt feelings or a disappointed outcome will result in bad things being said by one party about another. Sometimes, people just like to gossip and spread rumors about others. In certain cases, those statements could fall into the category of defamation, resulting in liability of the person making the statement.
What is Defamation?
Defamation is an intentional false communication which injures a person’s reputation or good name. Defamation occurs in one of two forms: libel or slander. Generally, a defamatory statement made in a written or permanent form, such as a newspaper, magazine or correspondence, will be considered libel. An oral communication, such as a conversation or radio broadcast, is slander.
Elements of a Defamation Claim
In order for a plaintiff to prevail on an action alleging defamation, the plaintiff must establish the following:
1. The defendant intentionally made a false and defamatory statement;
2.The statement concerned the plaintiff;
3.The statement was made to at least one third party; and
4.The statement caused harm to plaintiff.
Burden of Proof
The plaintiff bears the burden of proof in a defamation lawsuit. That means that the plaintiff (the defamed person) must prove each and every element of defamation to the court or jury in order to prevail and earn a judgment against the defendant. Since defamation claims stem from state law, each state’s law, elements and requirements for defamation will vary.
Public Figures v. Private Individuals
In addition to state law variation, the level of proof required of the plaintiff in a defamation suit varies depending upon how the court classifies the plaintiff, either a public figure or private individual. If a private individual asserts a defamation claim, that private citizen must prove that the defendant made the defamatory statement and that the defendant “knew or should have known” the statement was false. On the other hand, if a public figure brings a defamation suit, their standard of proof escalates. In order to prevail, the public figure must establish “actual malice” on the part of the defendant. Actual malice, in this context, means that the defendant made a statement, having actual knowledge of its falsity, or recklessly disregarded the statement’s truth or falsity. Thus, the standard of proof for the public figures is clearly much higher and much more difficult to prove than that of a private individual.
The definition of “public figure” varies depending on the jurisdiction and each individual situation. Generally, public figures are famous people, those who have assumed a prominent role in society. Recent court decisions have held, however, that there can be public figures within certain circles or industries. For example, in the horse industry, the courts could consider some people as public figures, for the sole purpose of the horse industry, based upon their prominent role within this industry. Each court will determine a person’s status on a case-by-case basis. For example, a court could hold that a nationally-known trainer, owner or breeder raised their status to that of a public figure, if well enough known in the industry.
Defenses to Defamation
Even if the plaintiff can prove the elements required for defamation, the defendant will enjoy protection from liability because of certain recognized defenses.
Truth/Justification. Truth is an absolute defense to claims of defamation. While a statement may certainly hurt a person’s reputation, if the statement is true, the court will not hold the defendant liable. Keep in mind, however, that truth rarely presents a simple matter. In defamation cases, many factual issues will arise, such as what exactly the defendant said and if the statement grounded in truth.
Absolute Privilege. The reporting or relaying of statements made in a judicial proceeding will not impute liability, provided the defendant accurately reports or relays the information.
Invitation/Permission. If a party consents to, authorizes or invites the defamatory statement, the defendant will have a valid defense.
Constitutional Privilege. Every person possesses the right to free speech. This right remains, even if a comment or statement contains derogatory information, provided it pertains to matters of legitimate public purpose. Such comments must be made in complete honesty, without malice, and based upon true facts. Provided the defendant meets the above requirements, that defendant will have a defense to defamation.
Example – The Aggrieved Buyer
Buyer buys from Seller a high-quality, expensive western pleasure horse. After Buyer gets the horse home, Buyer cannot settle the horse down and the horse will not perform as it did when Buyer tried out the horse. Buyer, extremely unhappy with his purchase, asks Seller to take the horse back. Seller denies return of the horse, and during a telephone conversation tells Buyer that if the horse is handled and trained properly, it will perform and win. Buyer, insulted by Seller’s statements, proceeds to tell several people that Seller drugs her western horses in order to win in the show ring and to sell them. The rumor spreads quickly, and Seller has to defend himself to several people, including customers. Did either Buyer or Seller defame the other in this matter?
Buyer claims that Seller defamed him by stating that if the horse was trained and handled correctly that it would perform and win. Buyer took that as a direct attack on his ability to train horses. In the example presented above, however, the Buyer will not prevail, as the statement was never made to a third party. Remember that Buyer had the obligation to prove each and every element of defamation. Since not all the elements of defamation were not established, Buyer will likely not prevail.
Seller claims that Buyer defamed her by telling others that she drugs her western horses. Based upon the facts presented above, Seller probably would have a good claim for defamation against Buyer, as all of the elements of defamation have been established. Note, however, that if Buyer can prove that Seller did drug her horses for showing or selling purposes, Buyer will have the defense of truth to Seller’s defamation claim.
The horse industry often contains emotionally charged individuals. While this can often be a good thing, it can also create problems. When a relationship in the horse industry dissolves, disappointment, insult and pain can often cause the parties involved to make statements regarding others, regardless of the truth; sometimes despite the truth. Before such statements are made, think carefully. Derogatory and untrue statements can often result in liability for defamation.
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© August, 2002. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted nor reproduced in any manner without prior written permission by the author.