California Landmark Cases on Defamation

To be libelous, a statement must contain a provable falsehood. (Bently Reserve LP v. Papaliolios (2013) 218 Cal. App. 4th 418 at p. 426.) Thus, for purposes of defamation liability, courts distinguish between statements of fact and statements of opinion. (Ibid.) Statements of opinion do not enjoy blanket protection, however. (Summit Bank v. Rogers (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 669, 696 (Summit Bank).) "On the contrary, where an expression of opinion implies a false assertion of fact, the opinion can constitute actionable defamation. The 'crucial question of whether challenged statements convey the requisite factual imputation is ordinarily a question of law for the court. ' 'Only once the court has determined that a statement is reasonably susceptible to such a defamatory interpretation does it become a question for the trier of fact whether or not it was so understood. ' The question is '"whether a reasonable fact finder could conclude the published statement declares or implies a provably false assertion of fact. . . ." '" (Ibid.) "If a statement is 'ambiguous and cannot be characterized as factual or nonfactual as a matter of law,' a jury must determine whether the statement contains an actionable assertion of fact." (Bently Reserve, supra, 218 Cal.App.4th at p. 427.) Courts apply a totality of the circumstances test in determining whether a statement is actionable fact or nonactionable opinion. (Summit Bank, supra, 209 Cal.App.4th at p. 696.) This requires an examination of both the statements themselves and the context in which they were made. (Burrill v. Nair (2013) 217 Cal.App.4th 357, 384.) A statement of purported opinion may be actionable if it implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis of the opinion. (Wilbanks v. Wolk (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 883, 902-903.) "Even if the speaker states the facts upon which he bases his opinion, if those facts are either incorrect or incomplete, or if his assessment of them is erroneous, the statement may still imply a false assertion of fact. Simply couching such statements in terms of opinion does not dispel these implications." (Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990) 497 U.S. 1, 18-19.) "On the issue of context, our Supreme Court has explained: 'Where potentially defamatory statements are published in a . . . setting in which the audience may anticipate efforts by the parties to persuade others to their positions by use of epithets, fiery rhetoric or hyperbole, language which generally might be considered as statements of fact may well assume the character of statements of opinion.' " (Summit Bank, supra, 206 Cal.App.4th at p. 696.) "'"Thus, "rhetorical hyperbole," "vigorous epithets," "lusty and imaginative expressions of . . . contempt," and language used "in a loose, figurative sense" have all been accorded constitutional protection. ' ' " (Hawran v. Hixson (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 256, 289.) Courts have recognized that the nature of online media may encourage participants to play fast and loose with facts, and thus visitors to websites will often discount a poster's statements accordingly. (Summit Bank, supra, 206 Cal.App.4th at pp. 696-697; see Chaker v. Mateo (2012) 209 Cal.App.4th 1138, 1149 statements were "made on Internet Web sites which plainly invited the sort of exaggerated and insulting criticisms of businesses and individuals which occurred here".) But this does not mean "online commentators are immune from defamation liability." (Sanders v. Walsh (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 855, 864.) To the contrary, "Internet posts, where the 'tone and content is serious,' where the poster represents himself as 'unbiased' and 'having specialized knowledge,' or where the poster claims his posts are 'Research Reports' or 'bulletins' or 'alerts,' may indeed be reasonably perceived as containing actionable assertions of fact. And while 'generalized' comments on the Internet that 'lack any specificity as to the time or place of' alleged conduct may be a 'further signal to the reader there is no factual basis for the accusations,' specifics, if given, may signal the opposite and render an Internet posting actionable." (Bently Reserve, supra, 218 Cal.App.4th at p. 431; see also Wilbanks v. Wolk, supra, 121 Cal.App.4th at p. 904, fn. omitted defendant's position as "crusader and watchdog to the industry" demonstrated she "expected readers to rely on her opinions as reflecting the truth".)