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Defamation in the Horse Industry

Maddie, a struggling horse trainer, made up a nasty rumor that another trainer, John, abused his horses and administered performance enhancing drugs.  Maddie knew that none of this was true.  The rumor spread and John's customers slowly left him.  Many became Maddie's new customers.

Yes.

Defamation

Slander and libel fall into a category of law known as "defamation."  A defamatory communication is a false communication that tends to lower a person's reputation in the community or deter others from associating with that person.  Slander is generally understood to involve spoken words, and libel generally involves written words.

A lawsuit for defamation typically involves these elements: (1) a false or defamatory statement (2) concerning the “plaintiff” (the one injured by the defamatory communication) (3) that was actually seen or heard by third persons (4) there was no legally-recognized privilege under which the statement was made and (4) the statement at issue has a tendency to harm the defamed person's reputation.

Defenses

Defenses in defamation cases can include the following:

  • Truth.  In any defamation lawsuit, truth is widely recognized as an absolute defense.
  • Consent.  If the defamed person somehow consented to the complained-of communication, this might furnish the basis for a defense.
  • Privilege.  The law regarding privilege can be complex.  Privileges may apply, for example, to statements made in court by lawyers, judges, and witnesses that are reasonably relevant to the legal proceedings.  Privileges may also apply to statements made in legislative proceedings.  Sometimes, statements made without malice to appropriate law enforcement agencies can be privileged; this might be the case if Maddie had legitimately and in good faith notified the police that she personally witnessed John doing things that seemed to violate anti-cruelty laws.
  • First Amendment.  Constitutional rights of free speech will not necessarily protect those who defame others.  The law recognizes that limits exist.
  • “Public Figure.”  If the defamed person legally qualifies as a “public figure,” a misstatement made honestly and in good faith will typically not support a case.  Rather, the public figure must prove that the defaming party acted with "malice."  (“Malice” essentially means that the one making the statement knew it was false when it was made or that he or she had serious doubts about the truth of the statement.)  The classic “public figure” is a celebrity, athlete, politician, or another of that stature, but the definition can be much broader and more complex.
  • Opinion.  Be careful before assuming that your “opinions” are not defamatory.  In some states, statements of opinion, when they include facts that can later be evaluated and proven false, might actually support defamation.
  • Statute of Limitations.  State statutes, known as the statute of limitations, may severely limit the time in which a lawsuit can be filed.  A lawsuit filed too late, regardless of its merits, risks dismissal.

The law of defamation can be very complex.  When questions arise based on specific situations, contact a knowledgeable attorney.

Categories: Defamation

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is considered to be one of the nation's leading attorneys in the field of equine law. A frequent author and speaker on legal issues, she has written over 400 published articles, three books, and has lectured at seminars, conventions, and conferences in 29 states on issues involving law, liability, risk management, and insurance. For more information, please also visit www.fershtmanlaw.com and www.equinelaw.net, and www.equinelaw.info.

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"Excellence in the Advancement of Animal Law Award" - American Bar Association Tort Trial & Insurance Law Section Animal Law Committee

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"Industry Service Award" - Michigan Equine Partnership

"Catalyst Award"- Michigan Horse Council

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"Associate Service Award" - United Professional Horseman's Association

"National Partnership in Safety" Award" - Certified Horsemanship Association 

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