An Overview of Kentucky Law on Defamation and Defamation Per Se

by Mary Hodges

Defamation is a false statement, communicated to others, that gives a negative impression of a person, group, or entity. Defamation can include slander which is spoken words, or libel which is written or printed. Defamatory language can cause harm to a person or entity such as damage to one’s reputation in the community.

There are some types of statements that are automatically considered injurious to one’s reputation and therefore require no additional proof that the person was, in fact, harmed by the statement. These are discussed below in more detail. Furthermore, if the speaker knows the statement is false and intentionally defames a person anyway, the aggrieved party may be entitled to punitive damages.

One who believes they have been defamed can obtain relief by bringing a civil suit. However, certain elements must be met in order to prove defamation. The following is a brief overview of Kentucky law on defamation. However, state laws may vary on this matter.

To establish a claim for defamation, the following elements must exist: (1) defamatory language, (2) about the plaintiff, (3) which is published, and (4) which causes injury to reputation. Stringer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 151 S.W.3d 781, 793 (Ky. 2004). Moreover, “defamatory language is broadly construed as language that ‘tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.’” Id.

Defamatory words must be construed in their most natural meaning and in the sense in which they would be understood by those to whom they were addressed. Digest Pub. Co. v. Perry Pub. Co., 284 S.W.2d 832, 834 (Ky. App. 1955). Defamatory statements should also be measured by the “natural and probable effect on the mind of the average reader.” Stringer, 151 S.W.3d at 793. “It is for the jury to determine whether a defamatory meaning was attributed to it by those who received the communication.” Id.

A claim for defamation per se, however, creates a conclusive presumption of both malice and damages. Disabled American Veterans, Dept. of Kentucky, Inc. v. Crabb, 182 S.W.3d 541, 547 (Ky. App. 2005) (citing Stringer, 151 S.W.3d at 794). “Therefore, damages are presumed and the defamed person may recover without allegation or proof of special damage.” Id. (finding that Plaintiffs were also entitled to punitive damages because Defendant’s actions were malicious and intentional). Statements are defamatory per se when they “tend to expose the plaintiff to public hatred, ridicule, contempt or disgrace, or to induce an evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking people, and to deprive him of their friendship, intercourse and society.” Id. (citing CMI, Inc. v. Intoximeters, Inc., 918 F. Supp. 1068, 1083 (W.D. Ky. 1995).

The typical types of statements that constitute defamation per se are those that impute crime or unfitness to perform duties of office, or those which tend to injure one in his reputation, or expose him to public hatred. Stringer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 151 S.W.3d 781, 795 (Ky. 2004); Courier Journal Co. v. Noble, 65 S.W.2d 703 (Ky. App. 1933) (finding that statements made about one’s unfitness to perform duties of office fall under defamation per se).

If you feel you have been harmed by defamatory statements, the lawyers at Cosgrove Law, LLC have substantial experience with defamation claims.