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Can You Sue For Defamation in a Divorce?
Divorces are not only legally complex, but they are also emotionally taxing. The parties usually experience many different emotions, such as sadness and anger. Unfortunately, these emotions sometimes get the best of the parties, and they write or say something negative about the other party.
This is not an uncommon thing in divorce cases. But can these negative comments made in the heat of a divorce battle be considered defamation? If a negative comment made during a divorce case is defamation, does the other party have any legal recourse? And are there any defenses to a defamatory statement made during a divorce case? Continue reading to learn more.
What is Defamation in Florida?
According to Florida law, the elements of a defamation claim are: (1) the defendant published a false statement; (2) about the plaintiff to a third party; and (3) the falsity of the statement caused injury to the plaintiff.
There are a few important things to point out about these elements. First, the statement must be false. As detailed below, a true statement is not defamation.
Second, the false statement may be “published” by spoken or written words. When the false statements are made in writing, it is called libel, and when the false statement is made by spoken word, it is called slander.
Finally, the published false statement must injure the other party. Usually, the injury that the other party suffers is a negative effect on their reputation.
For example, a wife and husband are in the midst of a contentious divorce. The wife gets angry at the husband and posts on Facebook that during their marriage, the husband would regularly get drunk and drive their children around without thinking about their safety. The wife knows that this statement is false.
The post makes its way around the internet, and eventually, the husband’s employer reads the wife’s false statement. The husband’s employer is mortified by the wife’s allegation and fires the husband. The husband is now unemployed and can’t find a good job because all of his potential employers have read the wife’s Facebook post, and they do not want to be associated with him.
What Are Some Defenses to Defamation?
Florida law provides many defenses to defamation. However, only some are relevant to whether you can sue for defamation in a divorce. As you can see from the defenses and descriptions below, the defenses to defamation make sense and protect people from being sued for simply speaking their minds.
The Statement is an Opinion
According to Florida law, a statement that is purely opinion is a complete defense to defamation. A statement is considered “purely opinion” if the speaker’s statements are their opinion based on some fact that supports their opinion.
For example, in a divorce case, the husband/father alleges in court that the wife/mother should not receive custody of the children because she is a “hoarder.” To support his opinion, the husband/father provides the court with pictures of the wife/mother’s home showing that it is full of garbage, etc. While the wife/mother may not be formally diagnosed or categorized as a “hoarder,” the pictures surely support the husband/father’s opinion.
The Statement is True
If a statement is true, it cannot be defamatory, even if it is harmful to the other person. However, under Florida law, truth is only a defense against defamation if it is coupled with a “good motive.”
Using the same example from above, the husband/father may allege that the wife/mother’s home is not fit for the children because it is dangerous due to the wife/mother’s hoarding. If the husband/father provides current or recent pictures of the wife/mother’s home, his statements would likely be protected by the truth defense, and his motive is to protect the children.
On the other hand, if the pictures were from years ago and the wife/mother has since cleaned her home and dealt with her hoarding issues, then the husband/father’s statements, while true, do not come with good intention. He is trying to use old information to hurt the wife/mother’s reputation in the divorce case.
The Statement is Protected By Privilege
Under Florida law, privilege protects statements made by certain people or situations from being considered defamation. Florida law recognizes several types of privilege, but the most relevant type of privilege here is the absolute privilege extended to statements made during judicial proceedings.
Many lawsuits, including divorce cases, require discussing embarrassing topics or situations. As such, relevant statements made by the parties, witnesses, attorneys, and judges during judicial proceedings (i.e., lawsuits) are immune from defamation claims.
Again, using the example from above, if the husband/father makes statements about the wife/mother’s ability to care for the children during the divorce trial, it is likely that he will be able to use the absolute privilege defense. However, his statements must be relevant to the proceedings.
Contact an Orlando Divorce Lawyer With Questions About a Defamation Claim
Defamation claims are nuanced and oftentimes contentious. If your spouse or ex-spouse has made defamatory statements against you (or they are suing for defamation), contact an experienced Orlando family lawyer for help.