Issues of Libel, Slander, Defamation and Statutes of Limitation

In 1990, the news media reported a stunning outcome in a libel case against the Philadelphia Inquirer. The outcome was stunning because the plaintiff, Richard L. Sprague, received a judgment of $34 million. This was the largest libel judgment in American history up until that point in time. Also shocking was the fact that the case was litigated for 17 years. Yes, you read that correctly, it dragged on for 17 long years.

The incident of libel occurred in 1973 when the Philadelphia Inquirer published reports that Sprague, a District Attorney, may have committed prosecutorial improprieties in a homicide case. Such allegations were not based on any reality and a libel suit ensued. The Philadelphia Inquirer fought the suit for nearly two decades but eventually failed to win. Sprague's winning outcome proved that if a plaintiff continues to fight no matter how difficult a case is, a successful outcome is possible. However, one erroneous assumption derived from the case is that you can wait many years to file a libel case.

It is critical that anyone considering a libel case in the state of Pennsylvania understand that Sprague LITIGATED his case for 17 years. He did not wait 17 years to file the case. Had he done that he would not have a case at all since the statute of limitations would have long since expired. Specifically, any defamation of character suit centering on libel or slander is limited to a one year statute of limitations. This is a very narrow time frame and that is why it is important to move forward with such a case as soon as possible. Of course, in order to do this, one must understand what specific type of case to bring forward — a slander suit or a libel suit.

If there was one common mistake people make it would be the fact that they assume libel, slander, and defamation are the same thing. In actuality, defamation of character refers to false statements that have damaged a person's reputation. Libel and slander are the "subsets" of defamation of character that center on two different ways in which character can be defamed.

These differences are not merely semantic. Each requires different litigation approaches and arguments. That is why it is important to clearly define what each term specifically represents.

Defamation of Character.
This refers to false statements that damage the reputation of an individual. This damage does not refer to merely hurting someone's feelings. (Although you can recover damages as a result of infliction of emotional distress) It also centers on a loss of income or other negligible economic outcomes that derive from malicious or irresponsible false statements. Again, there are two ways defamation of character can be proliferated: slander or libel.

Slander refers to defamation of character that derives from speaking falsely about someone. Essentially, the false statements must be spoken aloud and those who heard the false statements reacted adversely in some way to the slandered party.

Libel is identical to slander in the sense that it also center on false, defaming statements about an individual. What differentiates libel from slander is the fact that libel is not spoken aloud in a transitory manner. Instead, the false statements are recorded or published. Examples of this would be false statements in a magazine, film, radio program, television show, or even a billboard or cartoon.

The approach to litigating slander and libel are different even though both yield the same result: a defamation of someone's character. That is why it is critical to seek a qualified attorney who understands the proper approach to litigating each suit. And, of course, regardless of the type of suit one initiates it is critical to avoid the expiration of the statute of limitations. If not, there is no legal standing to bring a case forward.