In today’s media-saturated world, where the power of the internet can bring global attention in an instant, the threat of unfair criticism is ever present. But when criticism is based on a false statement, that can cross the line into unlawful defamation. The law can protect you if you are the victim of defamation, but only if you act quickly. The most common reaction to defamation—waiting for the problem to go away—can be a terrible mistake.
In Ohio, defamation is defined as a false statement that causes injury to a person’s reputation, business, or profession, or that exposes him or her to public hatred, contempt, ridicule, shame, or disgrace. Am. Chem. Soc. v. Leadscope, Inc., (Ohio. 2012). But a strict deadline applies to all defamation claims. In Ohio, the statute of limitations for defamation is one year. This relatively short deadline is often a serious problem for victims.
For example, in one case, Singh v. ABA Publishing, (Ohio Ct. App. 2003), an individual brought a defamation claim based on a magazine story that accused him of sexual harassment. The court held that Ohio’s one-year statute of limitations begins to run at the time the defamatory words “are written or spoken, not when the plaintiff became aware of them.” Id. at ¶ 22. Thus, even though the victim did not immediately learn of the defamatory statement made against him, he still only had one year to act, and the clock started to run on the exact day the defamatory words were first published. Unfortunately, the victim in that case waited too long—eight days too long, to be exact. The court could have protected him if he had acted sooner, but because he waited, his case was dismissed entirely. This is all too common in defamation cases. See, e.g., Sabouri v. Ohio Dept. of Job & Family Servs., (Ohio Ct. App. 2001) (the plaintiff’s case was dismissed after he was defamed in an e-mail, and even though he did not see the e-mail until six months after it was sent, the one-year statute of limitations still applied).
Defamation can also be a first step in an ongoing series of problems. If a victim does not act quickly, not only can the victim can lose the ability to bring a defamation claim, but the wrongful behavior escalate. For example, the case of Ohio Association of Elementary School Administrators v. Educational Impact, Inc., (S.D. Ohio 2013), involved two entities engaged in a long-standing business relationship. As the relationship soured, one party was the victim of numerous defamatory statements. Rather than immediately filing suit to protect itself, the victim waited, hoping that the defamation would stop and that the relationship could be saved. But not only did the defamation continue, the defamer eventually sued the victim in a declaratory judgment action. The victim brought defamation counterclaims, but by then it was too late. The court held that “[t]he statute of limitations begins to run on the date of publication, not the date of discovery of the defamation,” and the victim’s defamation claims were all dismissed. Id. at *6–7.
The victim in that case was reluctant to bring a lawsuit, so it ignored the defamatory statements made against it. But in doing so, it only made the situation worse. Not only was the victim eventually dragged into a lawsuit that it hoped to avoid, by the time that case began, the statute of limitations on its defamation claims had all run out. While it is usually admirable to “take the high road” and ignore false criticisms, when those criticisms cross the line into defamation, waiting can be a terrible mistake. If you have been the victim of defamation, act quickly to protect yourself, before it is too late.