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Lawsuits for trade libel and commercial disparagement

| Jan 6, 2021 | Firm News |

Most Floridians know that they can bring a defamation claim against an individual who makes a libelous or slanderous statement harming their reputation. But do the same laws apply to businesses in the Sunshine State?

As the Florida Bar Association explains, Florida generally considers defamation against businesses to be trade libel or commercial disparagement. These claims are similar to — and technically a subcategory of — defamation claims for individuals, but there are a few key differences in the way state law treats these.

What constitutes a trade libel case?

Trade libel, like all defamation cases, only deals with statements that are false. A true statement — even if it causes reputational damage — provides an absolute defense against defamation.

Trade libel cases similarly must deal with published or communicated statements involving a third party, and the statements in question generally must have caused actual harm to the plaintiff. For example, if a business lost revenue after a false claim about a safety risk, that would count as actual harm.

In contrast to individual defamation, trade libel requires that the statement deters people from doing business with the plaintiff, and that the person making the statement knew (or should have known) that the statement would cause the plaintiff damage.

Are there other important considerations?

As the Digital Media Law Project explains, in some states, defamation per se allows plaintiffs to receive damages for certain statements even without demonstrating actual harm. For example, if a person claimed that an individual had contracted a disease, the plaintiff could sue without having to demonstrate any actual losses or reputational harm. Unfortunately, Florida generally does not allow defamation per se for businesses or public figures, so they will need to have actual evidence of harm the defamatory statement caused.

Florida, like other states, does place some limits to the claims that public figures can bring, and while state law defines public figures as government officials, courts have found certain others to constitute public figures as well, including one hospital administrator. For this reason, businesses may have fewer options if a court counts them as a public figure.

Defamation cases in Florida have a two-year statute of limitations for most claims, so it is important to act quickly.