Continuing Mudd Law Offices‘ series of articles on defamation, this article discusses Indiana defamation law. Mudd Law Offices has practiced defamation law for more than ten (10) years. It represents corporations, individuals, and other entities that have been defamed. It also represents those who have been sued for defamation. In fact, in defending Internet anonymous speakers and service providers, its attorneys have been involved in setting appellate precedent in Illinois and Arizona.
To begin with, it should be remembered that defamation encompasses both libel and slander. Libel represents written defamation, while slander represents oral defamation.
To establish a claim for defamation in Indiana, a person must prove the existence of a communication with defamatory imputation, malice, publication, and damages. Defamatory imputation means that the statement tends to harm a person’s reputation by lowering the person in the community’s estimation, or by deterring third persons from associating or dealing with the person. Dugan v. Mittal Steel USA Inc., 929 N.E.2d 184, 186 (Ind. 2010).
Defamation can be either defamation per se or defamation per quod. In an instance of defamation per se, the defamed person does not have to prove any actual damages. A statement is considered to be defamatory per se in Indiana if it imputes one of the following: (1) criminal conduct; (2) a loathsome disease; (3) misconduct in a person’s profession or occupation; or (4) sexual misconduct. Kelley v. Tanoos, 865 N.E.2d 593, 596 (Ind. 2007). Should a statement fall into one of the four defamation per se categories, the plaintiff need not prove any actual damages, as the damages will be presumed to have occurred.
Any defamatory statement not constituting defamation per se will be defamation per quod. For defamation per quod, a plaintiff must plead and prove actual damages.
Perhaps most importantly, defamation claims in Indiana are subject to a two year statute of limitations. Ind. Code Sec. 34-11-2-4. In contrast to some other states, though, the statute of limitations on a claim for defamation in Indiana does not begin to run until the damage caused by the defamatory statement is “susceptible to ascertainment” or, at least, due diligence on the part of the plaintiff would have resulted in ascertainment of that damage. Burks v. Rushmore, 534 N.E.2d 1101, 1103 (Ind. 1989).
Defamation on the Internet can pose particular problems in the statute of limitations area. Specifically, there exists a debate as to whether or not publication of a defamatory statement on the Internet is considered to be a “continuous publication” for the purposes of determining when the statute of limitations begins to run. Some states have adopted the “single publication rule” to address that issue. Under the single publication rule, the publication for purposes of a statute of limitations begins when the statement is first published. Indiana courts, however, have never addressed whether or not the single publication rule applies to online defamation affecting Indiana residents. Because of the “ascertainment” rule in Indiana, though, it’s possible that the courts may never have to reach this rule. Nonetheless, to preserve one’s rights, it remains prudent to file within the statute of limitations. To be most conservative, in Indiana, a plaintiff or defamation victim should file their claim within two (2) years of the initial publication of the statement.
In addition to the foregoing, there exist certain heightened standards where the dispute involves a public figure or matters of public interest. A public figure who claims to have been defamed faces a higher hurdle than the average citizen. The United States Supreme Court has held that the public figure plaintiff must be able to prove actual malice on the part of the speaker, meaning that the speaker either knew that the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of his statement. New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
When the matter discussed in the allegedly defamatory statement is one of public concern, the plaintiff must again prove the speaker’s actual malice regardless of his status as either a public or private figure. Journal-Gazette Co. v. Bandido’s, Inc., 712 N.E.2d 446, 452 (Ind. 1999).
In all cases, should you believe you have been defamed, you should consult with an attorney who practices defamation law. In particular when the defamation (whether libel or slander) appears on the Internet, you should consult with a defamation lawyer experience in the context of the Internet.
Written by Stephanie M. Snyder, Associate, Mudd Law Offices with contributions from Charles Lee Mudd Jr.
The Principal of Mudd Law Offices, Charles Mudd, is licensed in Indiana.