A reader recently shared the story of two horse rescues with similar names, one doing good work, the other not so good. Someone posting on a horse welfare website passes along information about more than two dozen malnourished and neglected horses seized from the "bad" rescue but in the process associates the seizures with the almost-but-not-quite-identical name of the "good" rescue.
Is it an honest mistake or is it libel?
What are the damage control options for the "good" rescue?
In the broadest sense libel is the publication of anything that damages the reputation of someone else. Libel law applies across the board to publication anywhere, including the Internet, so the erroneous statement on its face probably qualifies. An assertion that the "good" rescue neglected horses in its care almost certainly harmed the rescue’s reputation, may have turned away potential donors, and by association might have damaged the reputations of all equine rescue operations. If there ever was a good example of why you should get your facts straight before posting something on the Internet, this is it.
Whether the individual knew the information was false and made the erroneous posting to attack the "good" rescue or whether it was a careless error does not really matter—honest mistakes generally can be libel. Courts have carved out an exception to the general rule for public figures, who must prove that the false information was published with malice. That is legalese for acting in bad faith by publishing a statement that an individual knows is false. Whether a horse rescue is a "public figure" in this context, though, is a question that courts have not yet decided.
Filing a lawsuit for libel and defamation is one of the options for a person who thinks he has been the victim of libel, and the proliferation of reality courtroom television programs might make it sound like a good idea. It often is not. Lawsuits are expensive, they take up an inordinate amount of time, they are emotionally taxing, and damages are very difficult to prove in court.
To win a lawsuit alleging libel and defamation the plaintiff must prove several things:
●That the statement was published and seen by at least one person other than the individual making the claim in court. This is a relatively easy thing to prove when the Internet is involved.
●That the statement was false. This is important because the truth of a statement is an effective defense against libel.
●That someone reading the statement would understand that it applied to the plaintiff and that the plaintiff’s reputation was harmed. If no one knows that the statement is about you, there is no way you could have been harmed.
●Finally, there must be damages, actual not speculative, that can be proven. This is the "no harm, no foul" rule and it may be possible for a plaintiff to win the lawsuit but not be awarded anything because damages cannot be established.
The difficulty of a successful lawsuit does not mean that a person has no options when dealing with disparaging postings on the Internet. Correct information usually can be posted on the same website where the incorrect information appeared and the website host might be amenable to removing the offending comments. Also, the Internet and social media outlets are very effective ways to spread positive information to potential clients and donors.
Google Alerts is a free service that can be used to track when and where your name or the name of your business shows up on the Internet. Other providers offer a similar service. How do you monitor what is being said about you on the web?