Understanding Defamation Suits

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 04 March 2023

First, I am not a lawyer. I’ve checked a few things with lawyers, I learned how to read court rulings in college, and this is an area I’m interested in. That said, nothing I write here should be construed as legal advice. If you take away anything, I suggest getting advice from a lawyer in your area to understand how things are done where you live.

Second, the allegations are quite difficult stuff involving descriptions of events that could fall into potential sexual assault territory and/or could at the very least be triggering. For the most part, I’m not going to include the statements themselves. For those who want more info, I have a link to where one can find the court documents.

I recently posted on Twitter some of the results of the defamation lawsuit by [S] against [G]. Twitter isn’t always the easiest way to make some points, so I’d like to explain a bit more here.

What is defamation?

Loosely speaking, defamation is a false statement of fact made about someone that can harm that person’s reputation. It has to be communicated to at least one other person.

According to this pamphlet from Sacramento County Public Law Library (a group that attempts to provide self-help resources for the community, but importantly is education, not legal advice), a plaintiff in California attempting to prove a defamation claim must prove all of the following:

  • The defendant made an unprivileged statement to someone other than the plaintiff.
  • The statement was a false statement of fact.
  • The statement was made about or was understood to be about the plaintiff.
  • The statement was negligently made (if the plaintiff is a “public figure” then actual malice must be shown).
  • Actual damage naturally arising out of the statement or that the statement was slanderous per se or libelous on its face.

One important thing to note here is a fact is something that could be proven to be true or false.

What are some of the defenses against defamation?

The Sacramento County Public Law Library offers the following as defenses against defamation. I won’t include the descriptions here but feel free to reference the pdf linked above.

  • Truth
  • Not a Statement of Fact/Opinion
  • Fair Comment and Criticism/Plaintiff is a Public Figure
  • Privilege
  • Libel-Proof Plaintiff
  • Death

What was the outcome thus far of the suit?

[S]’s claim stated that there were 8 allegedly defamatory statements in [G]’s post. Since I want to be careful about the sensitive nature of the details, both to the defendant and to the community members, I’m going to concentrate less on what was alleged and more on the outcomes.

Statement Sub Part Is a statement of fact? Paraphrased Misquoted/Out of Context Defamatory
Statement 1 1 Yes No No No
Statement 1 2 Yes No No No
Statement 1 3 Yes No No Yes
Statement 2 * Yes No No No
Statement 3 * Yes Yes No No
Statement 4 * Yes Yes Yes No
Statement 5 * Yes No No No
Statement 6 * Yes Yes Yes No
Statement 7 * Yes Yes Yes No
Statement 8 * No No

So what does this mean?

For statement 8, the court said it was “a nonactionable opinion.” That means it doesn’t meet the definition of defamation because it’s not a fact.

For statements 2-7 and statement 1 parts 1 and 2, those were demonstrated to be true according to the court. Those as well don’t meet the definition of defamation because they are not false.

Only for statement 1, sub-part 3, did the court find that that portion of the statement was defamatory. To quote the court, “Thus, the Court finds that [S] has proven that [G] failed to use reasonable care to determine the truth or falsity of her statement concerning ‘forcing [G] to move in with [S],’ and the statement is not substantially true.”

For the others, the Court found as follows:

Statement 2
”Given the abundance of testimony noted above on this point, which the Court credits, the Court finds that [G] has demonstrated that Statement Two and all of its subparts true.”
Statement 3
[G] has demonstrated that Statement Three is true.
Statement 4
[G] has demonstrated that Statement Four is true.
Statement 5
[G] has demonstrated that Statement Five is true.
Statement 6
[G] has demonstrated that Statement Six is true.
Statement 7
[G] has demonstrated that Statement Seven is true.

That means for those statements, they are not defamatory because they are true according to this ruling.

Please always check with a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but broadly speaking, having a “Findings of Fact” from a court likely could be used as evidence in a substantial truth defense. This may also be why the Sacramento County Public Law Library cautions, “Any plaintiff considering filing a defamation case in court should consider the possibility that the defendant will assert a truth defense.”

Additionally, besides the above findings of fact, there were a number of times where the Court had to correct the statements claimed by [S]'s complaint. I bring this up because it’s a pattern others have noted about [S]’s “debate” style.

For statement 4, the Court noted, “[S] has taken Statement Four out of context and characterized the quote that [G] attributed to [S] as a threat when in fact the context of Statement Four makes clear that [G] was describing what initially started as a joke that [S] repeatedly made. Even when the joke no longer felt like a joke to [G], Statement Four makes clear that [S] ‘still would laugh when saying it.’”

For statement 6, the Court notes not only is the claimed statement paraphrased but also misquoted. “First, the Court notes that [G]’s February 12, 2019 post did not use the word ‘coerced’ as alleged in [S]’s Complaint. Instead, [G]’s post used the word ‘pressured,’ which is reasonably construed as an inherently subjective term[.]”

For statement 7, the Court again notes the claimed statement is paraphrased and misquoted. The exact statement was “For my birthday, he bought me my first breast implants,” but the claim has the statement as “[S] pressured [G] to obtain breast implants.”

Libel-Proof Plaintiff

I want to bring up another detail I found interesting in the ruling. Under the damages section, the judge points out not only did [S] not provide evidence of the damages that could be attributed to the single instance of defamation alleged in his suit, the defendant’s lawyer pointed to a plethora of other sources of [S]’s loss of reputation not to mention the general downturn in some activities due to Covid during this time period.

Note above that in the list of common defenses, one of them is the “libel-proof plaintiff.” From the Sacramento County Public Law Library informational guide, a libel-proof plaintiff is “[a] person whose reputation is tarnished as to have no value, such as a convicted serial killer, cannot prove damage.”

One of the issues brought up in the ruling is with everything [Z] is in the middle of, with 4 other similar suits, thoughts of suing 2 others, having “been involved in a large number of highly visible clashes with people in the role-playing games industry,” and with his allegations of harassment and “hate mob” against even more people, how can he ever show the damages can be tied to any single allegedly defamatory statement.

I have no idea if [G]'s lawyer was trying to lay the groundwork for that defense or if [S] would qualify in this case, but it was interesting to me.

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a few questions that keep coming up about this case that I’d like to discuss.

How can both parties claim to have won?

So, civil lawsuits like this can be confusing and hard because there are multiple types of winning. So in this particular case, legally speaking [S] as the plaintiff in his original complaint is the winner because he was able to find part of [G]’s statement to be defaming. Had none of the statements or subparts thereof been found defaming, he would have lost his claim.

However, just because he is listed as the winner of the case, doesn’t mean that all of the alleged defaming statements were ruled by the court to be defaming. [G] was able to prove to the court’s satisfaction that Statements 2-7 were substantially true. This not only means is she not liable for any damages from them but there is now a Statement of Fact regarding them in Court records. I hope it’s easy to see how some folks might feel that [G] won in that sense.

If the Court believes [G]’s statements 2-7 were true, how could they declare [S] the winner?

Because the Court is about the law. They are not there to make value judgments. [G] couldn’t prove the one subpart to be true according to the law and since the burden of evidence was on her, [S]’s claim stood and it was determined to be defamation.

The case was unfair so we should accept the part that supports [S] and reject the rulings that don’t

I’m seeing this argument a decent bit from a few people. There are a few things to consider with this argument.

First, everyone had to play by roughly the same rules and the rules are known at the beginning. According to this self help guide, discovery in California can start 0-10 days from the time the first papers are served and must be completed 30 days before trial. Additionally, parties often have at least 30 days to respond, so plenty of padding needs to be added in. And the rules for how to do discovery are often very strict. Not following them may mean that evidence might not be usable during trial.

Second, even after the trial starts, there are legal ways of doing things. Typically the evidence all has to be shared between the parties before it can be used, it needs to be entered into the record, the arguments need to build on each other, etc. This can seem very arbitrary and unfair, and sometimes…they are. What one judge might allow, another won’t.

But that’s the system we all agree to. That’s why defamation lawsuits can be a bit of a gamble. They are intentionally designed to be hard to win because otherwise they can be used to silence any criticism or opposition.

But no matter those feelings and arguments, the current ruling is the legal ruling. And the same arguments made by [S]’s supporters could be made regarding the one sub-part that was ruled to be defamatory. Had [G] had just a bit more time, maybe enough evidence could have been produced. Who knows? But in the end, it doesn’t matter legally.

If you have a need to see the ruling itself or any of the other records pertaining to the case, they can be downloaded from the LA County Court and the case number is 20STCV09708.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

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