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Defamation & Reputational Harm

As the Wisconsin Supreme Court has explained, “[a] person’s reputation and good name is of inestimable value to him and once it has been besmirched by another through carelessness or malice restoration is virtually impossible.” Denny v. Mertz, 106 Wis. 2d 636, 658, 318 N.W.2d 141 (1982). Character assassination has severe consequences, whether the party publishes false statements in writing (libel) or orally (slander). Although libel and slander were historically treated differently, the two torts have since merged into a single claim for defamation.

The focus of any defamation suit is on the nature and harmful effect of the defamatory communication. Certain categories of defamatory statements can even be pursued without concrete, quantifiable harm. That said, a party asserting a defamation claim necessarily places its reputation on trial, which allows the defendant to prove that the “gist” of the alleged defamatory statement is true—a complete defense to a defamation action. In other words, only false statements are actionable; if the statements have a kernel of truth to them, no matter how salacious the story, the plaintiff will lose and may actually do more harm to its reputation in the process.

Of course, defendants are not immune from maliciously disseminating harmful information about another, even if there is a kernel of truth to their statements. The Wisconsin Legislature has declared a public policy interest in protecting the reputations of its citizens, which is why it has enacted numerous statutes—some which carry severe penalties—to protect against character assassination. See, e.g., Wis. Stat. § 134.01 (imposing civil and criminal liability on conspiracies to assassinate another’s reputation); see also Wis. Stat. § 942.03 (imposing criminal liability for furnishing false information to the public). 

Similarly, Wisconsin’s “right to privacy” statute vests plaintiffs with a civil cause of action when their right to privacy is violated, such as through a defendant’s dissemination of confidential information about the plaintiff that is not in the public sphere. See Wis. Stat. § 995.50. The legislature also created a civil cause of action to remedy the unauthorized use of an entity’s name, which also impose punitive measures on those who violate the statute. Wis. Stat. § 943.203.  In adopting these statutes, the Wisconsin Legislature armed victims of character assassination with numerous remedies to repair their tarnished reputations.

We are well-versed in litigating these types of cases, the contours of the issues in dispute, and the potential pitfalls in pursuing certain claims for relief. Whether you are the victim of character assassination, someone is pirating the use of your name and goodwill, or you’ve been accused of attempting to harm another’s reputation, we are here to assist.

Representative Matters

  • Lead counsel for a veterinarian clinic that sued numerous defendants who conspired to assassinate the clinic’s reputation by posting negative, defamatory Google reviews despite never having used the clinic’s services. Lakeview Animal Clinic, S.C. v. Gnatzig et al., Case No. 2019-CV-001418 (Waukesha County Circuit Court) (currently pending).
  • Secured dismissal of all claims against Milwaukee Brewer, Ryan Braun, in a lawsuit against his former friend who asserted claims for defamation, breach of contract, and fraud. See Sasson v. Braun, 2015 WI App 58, review denied, 2016 WI 2.
  • Represented the plaintiff in a defamation and business torts case against Carfax, Inc.; following the court’s denial of Carfax’s motion to dismiss, see 2012 WL 2597915, the parties engaged in extensive discovery and the case settled under favorable terms to the client. See Experian Info. Sols., Inc. v. Carfax, Inc., Case No. 11 CV 08927 (N.D. Ill.).