Element #3: Harm

The third element of defamation is harm: the plaintiff must prove they suffered tangible harm as a result of being defamed. If you said Morgan has three eyes, they can prove falsehood (they don’t have three eyes) and fault (you obviously know they don’t have three eyes). However, they probably can’t show they were harmed by your statement.

Harm can be financial (the plaintiff lost their job because of the defamation) or non-financial (they experienced emotional suffering). If the plaintiff is able to prove harm, the court can order you to compensate them by paying three types of damages:

  • Damages for past harm. If the plaintiff lost a teaching job because you defamed them, the court could award them an amount of money equal to what they would have earned from the job.
  • Damages for future harm. If you harmed the plaintiff’s reputation, the court might award damages based on their likely future losses.
  • Punitive damages. If your conduct was particularly heinous, the court might award punitive damages, which are mean to punish you and to deter others from following your example.

Punitive damages may not be available in some situations. In Washington, punitive damages are usually not available in civil litigation.

Per se defamation

Certain kinds of defamation are considered so obviously egregious that the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove harm, although they still have to prove falsehood and fault. Per se defamation includes:

  • Saying someone committed a crime
  • Saying they have certain contagious diseases
  • Saying they engaged in immoral or disreputable sexual conduct
  • Saying they engaged in unprofessional conduct that could harm others

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