The country was recently captivated by the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, arguably the most high-profile defamation case in recent history. Following a colorful trial, a Virginia jury found that a 2018 Washington Post op-ed by Heard defamed Depp. As a result, Depp was awarded $10 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages. At the same time, the jury awarded Heard $2 million dollars in compensatory damages for defamatory statements made by one of Depp’s attorneys, ostensibly on Depp’s behalf. The trial had millions of people asking a number of different questions, including the basic question “What is defamation?” Recent Louisiana cases such as Yanong v. Coleman, 53-933 (La. App. 2 Cir. 5/17/21), 317 So. 3d 905, 911, reh’g denied (June 24, 2021), writ denied, 21-01107 (La. 11/10/21), 326 So. 3d 1249 help to provide an answer.
As explained in Yanong, a party claiming defamation in Louisiana must prove four elements:
(1) a false and defamatory statement concerning another;
(2) an unprivileged publication to a third party;
(3) fault (negligence or greater) on the part of the publisher; and
(4) resulting injuries.
**To prove the third element of “fault,” malice must be shown.
The Yanong court explained that claims of defamation must be balanced against the right to free speech found in the state and federal Constitutions.
Louisiana recognizes two categories of defamatory words: (1) words that are defamatory per se and (2) words that are defamatory in meaning. Id. at 9. Words that are defamatory per se “expressly or implicitly accuse another of criminal conduct, or which by their very nature tend to injure one’s personal or professional reputation, without considering extrinsic facts or circumstances.” Id. When words are deemed defamatory per se, there is a presumption of fault on the part of the defendant that may be rebutted by showing that the statement was true or protected by a privilege such as fair commentary on a matter of public concern. Id. Words that are defamatory in meaning are words that, when taken in context, “a listener could have reasonably understood the communication to have been intended in a defamatory sense.” Id. at 9-10. Proof of words that are defamatory in meaning creates no presumption of fault.
Louisiana defamation suits frequently arise in the employment context. However, defamation claims in the employment context face obstacles. Such cases sometimes fail on the second element, publication to a third party, because “inter-corporate communications…[are] merely a communication of the corporation itself,” meaning an employer may need to communicate the alleged defamatory statement to an outside third party outside for it to be considered “published to a third party.” Cook v. Par. Of Jefferson, 2022 WL 19350, at *11 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2022). However, defamation claims do not always fail on the publication element and they are not limited to “A-list” celebrities or multi-million dollar cases.
In Yanong, the Louisiana Second Circuit affirmed a $15,000 compensatory damage award to a plaintiff who successfully proved that statements made by defendants on a podcast show and on Facebook were defamation per se. Yanong, p. 8. Under the facts of the case, the defendants on a live “podcast” expressed on multiple occasions their belief that the plaintiff was a victim of sex-trafficking and that she was purchased by her much-older husband. Id. at 1. The defendant(s) also labeled the plaintiff’s marriage as “legalized prostitution,” and stated that they had contacted foreign authorities to inform them the plaintiff was a victim of “trafficking.” Id. at 2. The statements continued onto social media, where one defendant insinuated the plaintiff’s husband purchased her from a catalogue or an internet matchmaking site. Id.
On appeal, the defendants argued the plaintiff did not prove the publication element of her case. Id. at 5. The appellate court found this contention meritless. The defendants “were fully aware they were engaging” in communications with third parties, they were recoding a podcast, were “shown onscreen on all the broadcasts,” and made comments that showed “they were aware that they had an audience and third parties were engaged in the interactive broadcast.” Id. at 17-19. Thus, the Second Circuit found Plaintiff met her burden on the publication element and affirmed the trial court’s judgment. Id. at. 20.
While the publication element can present a hurdle in some cases, the publication need not be in a national media source as featured in the Depp-Heard case. The Yanong decision reminds that statements made on social media and podcasts can meet the required standard.