How Long Does It Take to Sue For Defamation?
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If you are wondering, “How long do defamation cases take?” you are not alone. Many victims of defamation worry about the length of time a lawsuit will take before they see their desired results – whether that is the removal of unwanted content or financial compensation for their losses.
While there is no set time frame for a defamation lawsuit to resolve because every lawsuit is unique, there are numerous factors that will affect how long a defamation case takes, including:
- The jurisdiction where the lawsuit is pursued,
- Whether the case is contested or not,
- The length of settlement negotiations,
- Natural disasters or acts of God, and
- Whether the defendant is known or unknown.
Based on our experience litigating hundreds of cases, we’ve found that average defamation cases take anywhere from six (6) to twelve (12) months to resolve. However, heavily contested and more complex cases generally will take several years to reach conclusion.
In this article, we will discuss what you can expect in a defamation lawsuit and how long defamation lawsuits typically last. We will also examine the factors that affect the length of time for a lawsuit, including what factors can draw out a lawsuit.
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What to Expect in a Defamation Lawsuit
Filing any lawsuit, especially one that involves personal attacks on your reputation, may seem intimidating and complicated. After all, defamation can be very anxiety-inducing, since it involves reputation-damaging lies about you or your business.
One way to reduce the stress caused by defamation is to understand your rights and what to expect should you decide to file a defamation lawsuit.
Before diving into exactly what you can expect in your defamation lawsuit, it is critical to understand the definition of defamation and the many forms it can take.
What Constitutes Defamation?
In the simplest possible terms, defamation (or defamation of character) is a false statement of fact that is published to a third party and harms another’s personal or business reputation. There are two forms of defamation: libel, and slander.
Libel is simply defamation published in writing – whether in traditional print or a digital publication. This includes defamatory newspaper articles, social media posts, or even a letter.
Slander involves a false statement spoken aloud. This includes someone spreading rumors or making false statements in person.
Online defamation can occur in many forms (typically in blogs, reviews, social media posts, or comments) but it always involves a false statement made on the internet that damages another’s reputation.
Defamation vs. Opinion
It is important to know that an opinion, no matter how offensive or wrong, does not constitute defamation. But, it can be difficult to distinguish an opinion from a defamatory statement. The best way to identify an opinion is by looking at whether the statement can be proven true or false. If it cannot be proven one way or the other, the statement is likely considered an opinion.
For example, imagine a restaurant customer posts, “I think the food was terrible.” on a restaurant’s Yelp page. This statement would be considered an opinion that cannot be proven (because it is based on the commenter’s personal preference).
On the other hand, a restaurant customer who posted on Yelp, “Their food is terrible because their chef does not have any culinary training.” might find themselves on the defending end of a defamation lawsuit. Such a statement implies that the customer knows the chef does not have culinary training, and if that is untrue, the commenter can be held liable for their defamatory statement.
What Are the Key Steps of a Defamation Lawsuit?
Here is what you can expect when filing a defamation lawsuit.
Step One: Determine Whether You Have a Valid Defamation Claim
The first step you must take before filing a defamation lawsuit is determining whether you have a valid claim for libel or slander.
To find out whether you have a valid claim, it is first important to understand what exactly constitutes defamation (as explained above) and seek out an experienced defamation lawyer to make sure your claim falls within the statute of limitations in your state.
Step Two: Filing Your Defamation Lawsuit
After consulting with a defamation lawyer and determining that you have a case, you must submit a complaint or petition in the proper jurisdiction. A complaint or petition for defamation of character will start legal proceedings.
Step Three: Service, Answer, & Discovery
After your complaint is filed with the court, you must serve the defendant(s) with the Complaint and a Summons. The defendant will have to file a response with a specified timeframe (typically within 30 days after receipt of the complaint).
Then, the court will inform all parties of important deadlines with a scheduling order. From here, discovery will commence – a phase where both parties exchange information pertinent to the case.
Step Four: Settlement or Trial
After both parties collect the information they need during discovery, settlement discussions usually begin. Some libel and slander cases settle out of court or at a mediation.
If a settlement cannot be reached, your attorney may recommend that you proceed to trial. While the majority of defamation cases are resolved before trial, it is never a bad idea to be prepared, mentally and financially, for your case to go to trial.
Every case is unique, therefore it is critical to seek advice from an experienced defamation lawyer when initiating a libel or slander case.
When Can You Sue For Defamation?
You can sue for defamation when you have a valid claim. To bring a valid defamation case, you must fulfill several legal criteria. While the requirements for a defamation claim vary from state to state, there are four core elements that virtually all states have in common. To learn what those are, check out our video below:
Video: What Does It Take to File a Defamation of Character Lawsuit?
To sue for defamation, you must be able to establish:
- That a false statement of fact was made about your or your business,
- The statement was communicated to a third party,
- The statement was made with at least a negligent level of intent, and
- It caused damage to your reputation.
To prevail in a case for libel or slander, you must have enough evidence to prove each of the above elements, at a minimum.
What Are the Legal Remedies for Defamation?
There are numerous legal remedies available to you if you prevail on your defamation claim. For example, if you prove your claim for defamation of character, you could potentially:
- Recover defamation damages for your losses (for financial losses, emotional distress, and reputational harm, among others),
- Remove the defamatory content,
- Obtain injunctive relief to prevent the publication of additional defamatory content,
- Get payment for your attorney’s fees, and
- Require a published retraction, correction, or apology from the defamer.
Of course, not all of the aforementioned remedies apply in every case. It can be challenging to prove damages and there is no guarantee that you will prevail. For this reason, it is important to speak with an experienced internet defamation attorney to determine which legal remedies might be available to you.
How Long Does the Average Civil Lawsuit for Defamation of Character Last?
A defamation lawsuit, like most lawsuits, can be resolved at any time between the case’s filing and the conclusion of a trial. Some lawsuits are resolved quickly, while others can be drawn out over a long period of time. If a settlement is not reached and a case proceeds to trial, litigation can last on average from one to three years.
That being said, multiple factors can influence how long a defamation lawsuit takes.
How Long Do Civil Lawsuits for Defamation Typically Last?
On average, a lawsuit can be resolved in as little as a few months or last for several years. In our experience, most defamation lawsuits last one to three years.
Uncontested cases typically take anywhere from six (6) to twelve (12) months to resolve. Heavily contested and more complex cases generally will take several years to reach their final conclusion (i.e. settlement, trial, or judgment).
Below we will look at the typical timeline for a defamation case. Please note this is a rough estimate that will not apply to every case.
Initial Investigation & Preparation of Pleadings
Once you decide that filing a defamation lawsuit is appropriate for your specific issue, you (or your attorney) will need to conduct an initial investigation to gather the information needed for initial pleadings. This process can take 1–3 months, on average.
Initial Filing and Scheduling With the Court
After filing your complaint, you will need to serve a copy to the defendant, and they will have a specified timeframe within which to respond. From there, the court will issue a scheduling order and share it with all parties. This portion of your case can last 3-4 months.
During discovery, both sides will exchange information pertinent to the case. Depending on how much information needs to be shared, this process can last an average of 6–9 months.
Motions to Dismiss & Summary Judgment
Once both sides have the information needed to proceed, both parties will have the opportunity to ask the court to dismiss the case (or certain legal issues involved in the case). This portion of litigation can last 6–12 months.
Preparation For Trial
If a settlement agreement is not reached, your case will proceed to trial. Trial preparation can be extensive, lasting 2–3 months in general.
Depending on the complexity of your case and whether a jury is involved, a trial can last a few days to a few weeks. Of course, any verdict at trial can also be appealed, which adds another year.
When Does the Lawsuit Technically Start?
A lawsuit is initiated after the filing of the initial documents, commonly known as “pleadings.” Pleadings are formal documents that state each parties’ position.
The complaint or petition is the first pleading filed by the plaintiff to initiate the case. This pleading sets out the plaintiff’s version of the facts at hand, damages incurred and requests the desired legal remedies.
After the complaint is filed, the court will issue a case number and assign the case to a specific judge. The Clerk of Court will then issue a summons and a copy of the complaint, which must be served on the defendant.
From there, the defendant will have a certain timeframe in which to respond with an Answer. The defendant’s answer will typically explain why they think the plaintiff is incorrect in their allegations. It may also offer additional facts or make a counterclaim against the plaintiff.
Factors Affecting the Length of Time for the Defamation Lawsuit
As we explained above, on average, most lawsuits last between one to three years. Here are some factors that influence the length of time it takes to litigate these types of lawsuits:
- The jurisdiction where your case is filed,
- If your case is contested or uncontested,
- The length of settlement negotiations,
- The presence of natural disasters or an Act of God, and
- Whether the identity of the defendant is known or unknown.
The jurisdiction that your case is filed in has an impact on how long your defamation case may last. Some jurisdictions simply move slower than others (often because they have a heavier caseload).
For instance, say you file your case in a slow-moving jurisdiction and they schedule your trial two to three years in the future. This means deadlines for discovery and other pre-trial events will be pushed out as well, making the whole process go a little bit slower.
On the other hand, you might file your case in a jurisdiction that moves more swiftly, with a trial date in as little as one year from your initial pleading. In such a case, both parties will be forced to move faster to meet the court’s deadlines.
If the Case is Contested or Uncontested
As you might imagine, uncontested cases tend to proceed more quickly than those that are contested. If a defendant fights you every step of the way, contesting every issue, your case can be drawn out over a much longer timeframe.
If both parties reach a settlement agreement, the case can be resolved before trial. However, settlement negotiations can be time-consuming as well. The more both parties are willing to cooperate with negotiations, the quicker the case will move forward.
While settlement negotiations can take place at any time during a lawsuit, they often happen after discovery is concluded. A successful settlement agreement is often the quickest and most cost-effective way to resolve a defamation case.
Make sure to read our comprehensive resource by attorney Dorrian Horsey explaining the factors that determine an ‘average defamation settlement’.
Natural Disasters or Other Acts of God
Unfortunately, natural disasters and other acts of God can influence the length of time defamation suits last. In the past few years, Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on the legal system.
Many courts had to shut down and case deadlines were pushed out months or even years after their original scheduling. While these events are rare, they do happen occasionally, and they have a profound impact on the length of time needed to complete a lawsuit.
If the Defendant is Known or Unknown
Many defamers use pseudonyms to remain anonymous on the internet. If you are facing an anonymous poster, you have to file a John Doe lawsuit to uncover their identity before you can even proceed with your defamation lawsuit. If this is the case, you may be looking at a longer timeframe for the completion of your defamation lawsuit.
How Long Does a Plaintiff Have to File a Defamation Case?
The time you have to file a defamation case (after the defamation occurs) is called the statute of limitations.
Video: What is the Statute of Limitations for Defamation Claims?
The statute of limitations for filing your defamation claim depends on various factors like:
- The jurisdiction where you file your defamation lawsuit;
- Whether any legal exceptions apply to your matter, such as John Doe claims, exigent circumstances, when you discovered the defamation, or if the victim is a minor; and
- Whether you have other legal claims (like business disparagement, harassment, or revenge porn).
Although each state has a different defamation statute of limitations, most range between one and three years. The majority of states have a one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims. The statute of limitations for defamation claims is relatively short to make sure that the relevant information is still available and to ensure that witnesses can be deposed.
If you are located in a jurisdiction with a longer statute of limitations, we recommend filing your action sooner rather than later. The more time passes, the harder it is to pursue a defamation case.
What Can Cause the Lawsuit to Be Drawn Out?
A case can get drawn out (longer than the average case) for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Court delays or closures,
- Locating and serving the defendant,
- Motions to extend,
- Stay of proceedings,
- Slower-moving jurisdictions,
- Holidays and vacations,
Court Delays or Closures
Court closures can lead to the postponement or rescheduling of hearings and trials. If a court closes due to bad weather or any other act of God, your lawsuit can be delayed.
Locating & Serving the Defendant
If you have trouble locating or serving the defendant, your case may be delayed. If no defendant is served, the case cannot move forward.
Motions to Extend or Continue Dates or Deadlines
When either side files motions to continue or extend deadlines, this will lead to the lawsuit being drawn out and other further delays.
Stay of Proceedings
A stay of proceedings is when a court suspends a proceeding or trial temporarily or indefinitely. Suspending a proceeding or trial will cause obvious delays in your matter and will further draw out the case. However, the court may later lift the stay and continue the case.
An appeal is a legal process of asking a higher court to review a decision made by a judge in a lower court. Appeals are filed when you believe the judge made a mistake. If an appeal is filed by either the plaintiff or defendant, this will delay a lawsuit for an extended period of time.
Different jurisdictions move at different speeds. Some courts set dates quickly and give the parties ample time for discovery, while others will take their time setting dates and deadlines.
If you have filed your lawsuit in what some consider to be a “slow-moving” jurisdiction, this could cause your lawsuit to be drawn out longer than usual.
Holidays & Vacations
Holiday closings, as well as vacations, can affect the length of your defamation lawsuit. When either party, their attorneys, or judges take vacations (or are out for a holiday), they can delay a lawsuit’s scheduling dates and deadlines.
Scheduling Conflicts for Judges, Parties, & Attorneys
Likewise, scheduling conflicts – like another large trial – can cause delays in litigation. This is especially true when there are many parties and attorneys that are all trying to pick dates for mediations, pre-trial hearings, and trials where they do not already have something scheduled. This can cause dates and deadlines to be pushed out to accommodate everyone’s schedule.
How Can the Validity of a Defamation Claim Affect the Length of Time For the Lawsuit?
If you do not have a strong claim for defamation or your experienced defamation attorney informs you that your case could be hard to win, it could affect the length of time it takes to sue for defamation.
Defamation can be a challenge to prove and your claim may not be as clear-cut as you think. If this is the case, the discovery process might be drawn out longer than a typical case to secure the evidence necessary to prove your claim. Extensive discovery can include multiple rounds of interrogatories, depositions, and requests for production.
You could also face multiple motions (like motions to dismiss or motions to limit the scope of discovery) which require court hearings before your case can move forward.
How to Seek Legal Help for a Defamation Claim
If you feel that you have a defamation claim, your first step should be consulting with an experienced defamation lawsuit attorney. While you can try to navigate a defamation lawsuit on your own, it helps to seek legal advice from an experienced professional before you undertake a potentially life-changing lawsuit.
There are numerous national and state-level sources for locating a lawyer that focuses on defamation litigation. Some notable resources include:
- Online databases like Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, Lawyers.com, FindLaw, and Superlawyers.com,
- Your local attorney bar association,
- Your local legal aid society, and
- Referrals from family, friends, and co-workers.
Once you have gathered a list of defamation attorneys, you should contact each one to ensure they are the right fit. The following are some questions that are useful to ask an attorney:
- Do you provide a free consultation? If not, how much does one cost?
- How long have you been practicing law?
- How much experience do you have with defamation law? What is your success rate?
- Have you been the subject of disciplinary action? (Note that you can also find this information on your state’s bar association page.)
- What are your fees and how are they structured?
- What additional costs may be involved beyond your fees (filing fees, postage, copy fees, etc.)?
- How often will I be billed?
- How will you inform me of developments in my case?
We have compiled a comprehensive list of questions to ask when hiring an internet defamation lawyer to help you make the best choice for you.
Make sure to download our 33 question checklist to better arm yourself when hiring legal representation!
What Kinds of Damages Might be Awarded in a Defamation Lawsuit?
In litigation, damages are the financial compensation you receive for the harm you suffered as a result of the defendant’s conduct. Any type of compensation, including reimbursement for lost business, emotional distress, and attorney’s fees, is referred to as damages.
In a defamation lawsuit, damages can be awarded for the reputational harm you suffered as a result of the defamation.
Typically, there are three types of defamation damages you might recover in a defamation case:
Actual or Compensatory Damages
Actual damages, also commonly referred to as compensatory damages, fall into two categories:
- Special damages which reimburse plaintiffs for actual losses, and
- General damages which reimburse plaintiffs for emotional distress and reputational harm.
Nominal damages which reimburse plaintiffs for a minimal monetary amount (but not always) to recognize that a legal wrong has occurred even when actual damages have not been proven.
Punitive damages are typically awarded in cases where the defendant acted particularly egregious or maliciously (or with reckless disregard) in the course of their unlawful conduct.
Can You Sue for Defamation Without a Lawyer?
In short, yes, you can technically sue for defamation without a lawyer. Although the majority of individuals retain counsel to assist with a lawsuit, anyone can file a lawsuit without the assistance of an attorney. This is referred to as “Pro Se.” Pro se is Latin for “in one’s own behalf.”
When deciding whether or not to hire an attorney to help with your libel or slander lawsuit, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this your only chance for your case to be heard?
- Do you understand the legal paperwork?
- What if you need to appeal the court’s decision?
- Does the other side have an attorney?
Is This Your Only Chance for Your Case to Be Heard?
If this is your only chance to file a lawsuit based on the statute of limitations or other legal restrictions, you should consider hiring an attorney to present the strongest case possible (considering this is your only shot to file your case).
Do You Understand the Legal Paperwork?
If you have no prior experience in law or with legal paperwork, you could be in a lot of trouble. You may lose your case if you misinterpret something or fail to notice something crucial. Legal matters and law (especially defamation and libel law) are frequently complex. This is one of the primary reasons why attorneys must attain a specific amount of training before being allowed to practice law.
What if You Need to Appeal the Court’s Decision?
Appellate courts can be even more daunting and complicated than a state or trial court. If you are filing an appeal or facing an appeal filed by the other side, it is imperative that you seek legal counsel.
Does the Other Side Have an Attorney?
If the other side has an attorney you will be going up against someone who may have knowledge and experience that you do not. Hiring an attorney who can vigorously fight for you against another litigator can strengthen your chances of winning your case.
If you hire an attorney, they can help you:
- Find and present evidence effectively according to the court rules,
- Learn the facts of your case inside and out,
- Understand the procedural requirements for the jurisdiction involved,
- Know what type of evidence the court will accept, and
- Understand (and meet) court deadlines.
Keep in mind that filing and litigating a defamation lawsuit is a full-time job. Yet, your personal life will not stop just because you are dealing with a legal issue. Attorneys exist because lawsuits can be complicated and time-consuming. They can conduct the necessary legal research, investigate the facts, attend hearings and depositions, and prepare for mediation and/or trial, among other tasks.
You should always weigh the pros and cons of hiring a lawyer versus going Pro Se. It is also wise to consider the cost of a lawyer versus whether you can afford to lose your case.
Video: Cost of Minc Law’s Internet Defamation & Online Reputation Services
Here at Minc Law, we recommend seeking legal help in any complicated case.
Who Can Represent You in a Defamation Lawsuit?
Defamation is a civil matter, so you will need to hire a civil attorney to represent you in a defamation lawsuit.
It is important to note that you do not necessarily need an attorney in your state to represent you. When it comes to specialized issues like internet defamation, two heads are often better than one. Sometimes, two attorneys working together – local counsel and a subject matter expert – is the best way to achieve success for your case.
Today’s lawyers generally focus on a specific legal niche (e.g. internet defamation law). There are countless legal niches – from family law to personal injury, to intellectual property (and beyond). As we discover legal issues that were previously non-existent (like internet extortion) a new niche is born. To keep up with this constant growth, lawyers often focus on specific areas of law.
Lawyers can represent clients in another state when they work with a local lawyer. This is referred to as “pro hac vice” admission. Out-of-state attorneys can also provide services that do not require a court appearance, like in-house counsel services, mediation, and arbitration.
Work With Minc Law to File a Defamation Lawsuit
A defamation lawsuit is a weighty and potentially very expensive undertaking. Deciding to sue for defamation is not one you should make quickly or take lightly. Even with a strong case, it can take many months to reach your ultimate goal—and there is also a good chance that there could be cheaper, faster, and just as effective options available.
At Minc Law, defamation law is at the core of what we do—meaning that we have proven experience and intimate knowledge of all the twists and turns of a defamation case.
“Melanie was absolutely fantastic. Six years ago, someone wrote something terrible about me online and it followed me wherever I went! Jobs, relationships, etc. I finally got in touch with Minc, and Melanie was so courteous, professional, and diligent about getting the post removed. Thank God for Minc Law because I’m getting married next year, and I finally feel comfortable using my full name on my wedding announcements! Thank you, Minc!!!”
HCP, Sep 28, 2020
If you are a victim of defamation and have further questions about your situation and want to learn more about your options, reach out today to schedule your free, initial no-obligation consultation by contacting a chat representative, filling out our contact form, or calling us at (216) 373-7706.