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North Carolina Defamation Laws in Divorce or Domestic Violence Cases - Smith Debnam Attorneys at Law

North Carolina Defamation Laws in Divorce or Domestic Violence Cases

February 14, 2024 Tiffani Atamas

A jury awarded Johnny Depp $15 million in damages in a defamation suit against Amber Heard, who had alleged domestic abuse against him in an op-ed. Donald Trump was ordered to pay over $80 million in a defamation suit brought against him by E. Jean Carroll, who alleged that Trump had defamed her by claiming that she fabricated her sexual abuse allegations against him.

Can Divorcing Spouses Sue Each Other for Defamation?

This is a very common question, especially from my male clients who have been accused of domestic violence by their wives and have had a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) put in place against them. Even if the DVPO is only effective temporarily, it can leave a permanent mark on your life and reputation. Even when there are no domestic violence claims, couples going through a divorce will make all sorts of ugly allegations about the other, whether they are fighting for custody or alimony. 

Understanding the Legal Grounds of Defamation

It’s natural to feel that you should be entitled to some protection when your spouse is abusing the First Amendment. To prove defamation, you must show a false statement was made about you to a third party and damaged your reputation. Before you pursue an expensive defamation suit, consider two key points.

  1. Truth is a defense.

The key element to defamation is the word “false.”  Truth is a defense, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Every litigator knows that winning a lawsuit is not about uncovering the truth. It’s about proving your truth better than the other side proves their truth. The bottom line is this: if your spouse has enough evidence to convince the court that whatever they allege is true, your defamation suit will not get very far.

2. Statements made in the course of litigation do not count.

This often surprises people. All of the false, misleading, and otherwise defamatory statements about you that your spouse “publishes” in a complaint or motion filed with the court or that they say about you on the stand during a trial are protected. This makes sense on a policy level. For every client who is a victim of false allegations, I have another client with legitimate claims they would be unable to bring forward if they had to worry about being sued for defamation.

How to Prove Spousal Defamation?

If you are going through a divorce and you believe your spouse is ruining your reputation by spreading lies about you, you may still have some options. For example, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard were going through a divorce, but Johnny still successfully pursued defamation because Amber made defamatory statements in an op-ed. If your spouse did things like writing a book or speaking on a podcast about your alleged domestic violence, then you may have a defamation claim. 

There may be legal avenues other than defamation that you can explore. If you can prove that the claims made in a complaint or motion are frivolous, you could pursue sanctions. You should discuss these options with an attorney. The experienced Divorce & Family Law attorneys at Smith Debnam can help.

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