First Lady Settles Libel Lawsuit against British Newspaper

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Libel SuitFirst Lady Melania Trump has reportedly settled her libel lawsuit against the Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper, for $2.9 million plus costs.

As the New York Times reported, the newspaper also apologized to Mrs. Trump and said that its article was not true.

The Daily Mail had published an article in 2016, quoting from a Slovenian magazine article and a biography of Mrs. Trump. (Mrs. Trump was born in Slovenia.)

The article suggested that a modeling agency Mrs. Trump had worked for in the 1990s was also an escort service. The article was originally titled,  “Racy Photos, and Troubling Questions About His Wife’s Past That Could Derail Trump.” 

Once-in-a-lifetime Opportunity…

According to an earlier article in the Times, in her lawsuit, which sought damages of $150 million, Mrs. Trump said that the newspaper’s allegations had damaged a

unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multimillion dollar business relationships for a multiyear term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

The complaint did not refer explicitly to Mrs. Trump’s role as First Lady or as the wife of a presidential candidate.

Because of the Daily Mail’s article, according to the complaint, Mrs. Trump’s “brand” had lost significant value.

Defamation

Defamation is the communication of a false statement that harms the reputation of an individual.

“Slander” is spoken defamation and “libel” is written defamation.

The plaintiff must be able to prove:

  • a statement was false
  • it caused harm to the person’s reputation
  • the statement was made without adequate research as to whether the statement was true or false

For a public figure (for example, a politician or celebrity), the plaintiff must also show that the statement was made with “actual malice” — the intent to do harm or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Actual Malice 

This “actual malice” standard arose from the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan.

Private citizens only need to be able to show that a defamatory statement was made negligently.

Certain types of statements are considered “defamation per-se.”  That means that the damage is assumed and doesn’t need to be proven. For example, suggesting that someone was involved in criminal activity (for example, driving drunk or working as a prostitute) would be considered defamation per se if not true.

Libel in Fiction

Another type of defamation is “libel in fiction,” which I wrote about in this blog post.

In a “libel in fiction” case, the plaintiff contends that he or she is portrayed as a character in an allegedly fictional work, but that the portrayal includes false and defamatory characteristics or events.

Changing Libel Laws?

President Trump has been critical of US libel laws. As a candidate, at a rally in 2016, he said that if he won the presidency he was “going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.”

As Vanity Fair reported,

In 2006, [Trump] sought $5 billion in damages from Timothy L. O’Brien, who was then a staff writer at the Times, for reporting in his book TrumpNation that Trump’s net worth was far less than he claimed—$150 to $250 million versus $4 to $5 billion. Trump was ultimately unsuccessful in his claim that the reporting had cost him future earnings.

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