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What is Defamation Per Se and What Damages Are Recoverable?

If you own a business or engage in any other profession in Kentucky, you depend on your reputation to draw the customers or clients you need. Even in your private life, you want to maintain a good name. But all that can be undermined if someone makes false statements about you. Kentucky and other states recognize that such statements, known as defamation, may entitle you or your business to recover money damages for the resulting loss of reputation. Usually, you need to prove actual injury but in some cases — those involving defamation per se — the injury might be presumed.

Defamation per se is defined as spoken or written language that exposes the plaintiff to public hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace. It can also be a statement that causes people to have such a negative opinion of the plaintiff that they refuse to associate with him or her. Examples are statements that accuses a person of incest or adultery or unfairly prejudices the public against the person in their business or profession.

However, a federal court case applying the Kentucky law of defamation per se in a commercial context declared that it is not enough to say that a business’ product is bad. To be defamation per se, a statement must suggest that the business engaged in fraud, deceit, or dishonest or other reprehensible conduct.

There is also a distinction between what counts as libel per se or as slander per se. In a case of libel, which means defamation in writing, the court looks at the ordinary, natural meaning of the express language itself to determine whether it’s defamatory per se. For slander, which means spoken defamation, it is sufficient that the language used merely implies fraud, dishonesty, a crime or other illegal or unethical conduct.

In defamation cases, the damages that a jury may award to individuals or corporations include:

  • Damage to the plaintiff’s reputation
  • Specific economic damages, such as loss of employment or profits
  • Punitive damages, if the defendant’s conduct was oppressive, malicious or fraudulent

The significance of a finding of defamation per se is that it automatically establishes the plaintiff’s entitlement to damages without having to show an exact dollar amount of harm suffered. However, it is still important for plaintiffs to quantify their damages in order to maximize recovery. Otherwise, the jury is left to its own subjective determination of damages, which may be far lower than deserved.

Hemmer DeFrank Wessels, PLLC is a full-service litigation Kentucky law firm with experience in pursuing defamation claims in behalf of businesses and individuals. If you believe that you have been the victim of false statements, call us at 859-344-1188 or contact us online to schedule a consultation in our Fort Mitchell office.