Washington courts apply a negligence standard to defamation claims brought by private figures seeking compensatory damages when the allegedly defamatory statement makes substantial danger to reputation apparent.

Public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statements were false or recklessly disregarding their falsity. See the general page on actual malice and negligence for details on the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.

Failure to investigate is not sufficient to prove actual malice. You should be aware that when you do investigate and facts come to light that either do not support or rebut your factual assertion, the jury may infer recklessness and thus find actual malice if you go ahead and publish the information and it turns out to be false and defamatory. See Herron v. KING Broad. Co., 776 P.2d 98, 106 (Wash. App. Ct. 1989).

Privileges and Defenses

Washington courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the opinion and fair comment privileges, and the fair report privilege.

The status of the neutral reportage privilege is unclear and CMLP has not identified any cases in Washington concerning the wire service defense.

There also is an important provision under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that may protect you if a third party – not you or your employee or someone acting under your direction – posts something on your blog or website that is defamatory. We cover this protection in more detail in the section on Publishing the Statements and Content of Others.

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