California Employees Defamation Blog
What Qualifies as Actionable Defamation: Fact vs. Opinion
Not every false, offensive, and mean-spirited remark will justify a defamation suit. It is not enough that a statement is inherently hurtful and injurious to your reputation. For it to be actionable, a statement must assert or at least imply a false fact about you. A mere expression of opinion is not actionable under California defamation law unless it insinuates that it is based on some undisclosed defamatory facts. See Okun v. Superior Court (1981) 29 Cal.3d 442, 451-52.
The distinction between fact versus opinion is often difficult to assess, in part because language is susceptible to different meanings depending on the context. We ourselves had a case where an employer falsely stated that our client was terminated for “despicable conduct.” The court threw out our defamation claim before trial finding that “despicable conduct” was an opinion, but after we won at trial on other claims and cross-appealed to reinstate our defamation claim, the appellate court ruled in our favor and found that it was for the jury to decide whether there were defamatory facts implied by that statement. Clearly, our appellate court was right to conclude that such issues, which are highly fact-driven and context dependent, should be decided by the trier of fact, which in most cases means the jury and not the judge. This case illustrates just how close the issue is of whether a statement is a fact or opinion and how judges may differ on their interpretation of the law.
Making the distinction between fact versus opinion is not always easy and must be viewed under the totality of the circumstances. Some factors that courts consider in deciding whether a statement is a fact or opinion include:
- The context upon which the statement is made
- Whether the statement is provably false
- The precision and specificity of the statement
- Words of apparency (“in my opinion”)
- The medium
- The intended audience
The more a statement implies a definitive act that can be proven to be true or false the more likely it is to be a fact. On the other hand, the more a statement is couched in cautionary language making it clear the speaker is expressing his personal point of view, the more it is likely to be considered an opinion.