What happens if someone slanders or libels someone who is dead?
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UPDATED: Feb 5, 2020
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The historical reason for allowing claims for slander and libel is to protect the person’s reputation and thus his or her ability to earn a living and enjoy the benefits of good standing in the community. Once the person is dead, those concerns go away. In some states, even if the person who was defamed sued for libel or slander and died before the case went to judgment, the action would be dismissed.
True, there is the possibility of damage to the reputation of the deceased, and that could harm the estate of the deceased. For example, if someone defames an author who died, that author’s works may not sell as well in the future and thus the royalties the estate stands to earn would be reduced.
Some states do permit suits for libel or slander to be brought on behalf of the estate of a deceased person in some circumstances. The definition of libel in Texas includes written words that “tend to blacken the memory of the dead.” In Rhode Island there is a right of action if the deceased person was slandered or libelled in an obituary in any newspaper or on any radio or television station within three (3) months of his or her date of death. Many states, including California, will allow personal injury suits (libel and slander are considered personal injuries) filed by a living plaintiff to continue on and be passed to the plaintiff’s successor in interest or personal representative upon the plaintiff’s death. The plaintiff’s estate may then recover if the lawsuit is successful.
An experienced libel and slander attorney in your area can help shed light on the laws particular to your state.