Defamation can be defined as making a statement that (1) is false; (2) is either explicitly or implicitly presented as fact; and (3) conveys something negative about the person being described.
Often, the term “defamation of character” is used. Defamation can be either in spoken form, in which case it is also called slander, or in written form (including images), in which case it is known as libel. Libel lawsuits, in particular, have increased with the advent of the Internet.
As a general rule, for a defamation lawsuit to succeed, the plaintiff must be able to show that the statement made by the defendant harmed the plaintiff in some way, generally by damaging the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of others. For example, if you are a carpenter, and someone simply tells you in private that you are incompetent, you have no real case against them. But if someone gets up at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and states that you have defrauded many people by taking their money and not doing the work–and it isn’t true–you may have a good case for slander.
Even if someone makes a defamatory statement about you anonymously, e.g. by using a fake name for themselves when writing bad things about you on an Internet message board, you can still sue them. However, you then must also have a way of proving that they are indeed the one who posted the libelous message.
If you are contemplating a lawsuit for defamation, here are some suggestions for how to go about it.
Collect evidence. As the plaintiff, you bear the burden of proof. You must be able to show, in a court of law, that the defendant was the one who made the statement(s) in question; that the statement(s) were false; that the statement(s) harmed you in some way (usually by damaging your reputation); and that the statement(s) were made in the presence of third parties, i.e of person(s) other than the defendant and yourself.
Seek legal advice. While you can file a defamation lawsuit pro se, you will be much better off to get the advice of an attorney well versed in slander and/or libel. No matter how grievous you think the false statements were, your attorney will be able to advise you as to the potential monetary damages you may be awarded.
Proceed with the suit. If your lawyer advises you to do so, you may proceed with the suit. Your attorney will file suit in the appropriate venue. You will have to pay the appropriate fees. The defendant will be served with papers by a process server, and will have the statutory period in which to respond.
Negotiate where possible. You may or may not be able to get an out of court settlement.
Go to trial if necessary. Your lawyer will be able to advise you whether or not to seek a trial by jury or by a judge (bench trial).