CACI No. 1700. Defamation per se - Essential Factual Elements (Public Officer/Figure and Limited Public Figure)

Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (2024 edition)

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1700.Defamation per se - Essential Factual Elements (Public
Officer/Figure and Limited Public Figure)
[Name of plaintiff] claims that [name of defendant] harmed
[him/her/nonbinary pronoun] by making [one or more of] the following
statement(s): [list all claimed per se defamatory statements]. To establish
this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove that all of the following are
more likely true than not true:
1. That [name of defendant] made [one or more of] the statement(s)
to [a person/persons] other than [name of plaintiff];
2. That [this person/these people] reasonably understood that the
statement(s) [was/were] about [name of plaintiff];
3. [That [this person/these people] reasonably understood the
statement(s) to mean that [insert ground(s) for defamation per se,
e.g., “[name of plaintiff] had committed a crime”]]; and
4. That the statement(s) [was/were] false.
In addition, [name of plaintiff] must prove by clear and convincing
evidence that [name of defendant] knew the statement(s) [was/were] false
or had serious doubts about the truth of the statement(s).
Actual Damages
If [name of plaintiff] has proved all of the above, then [he/she/nonbinary
pronoun] is entitled to recover [his/her/nonbinary pronoun] actual damages
if [he/she/nonbinary pronoun] proves that [name of defendant]’s wrongful
conduct was a substantial factor in causing any of the following:
a. Harm to [name of plaintiff]’s property, business, trade, profession,
or occupation;
b. Expenses [name of plaintiff] had to pay as a result of the
defamatory statements;
c. Harm to [name of plaintiff]’s reputation; or
d. Shame, mortification, or hurt feelings.
Assumed Damages
Even if [name of plaintiff] has not proved any actual damages for harm
to reputation or shame, mortification, or hurt feelings, the law
nonetheless assumes that [he/she/nonbinary pronoun] has suffered this
harm. Without presenting evidence of damage, [name of plaintiff] is
entitled to receive compensation for this assumed harm in whatever sum
you believe is reasonable. You must award at least a nominal sum, such
as one dollar.
Punitive Damages
[Name of plaintiff] may also recover damages to punish [name of
defendant] if [he/she/nonbinary pronoun] proves by clear and convincing
evidence that [name of defendant] acted with malice, oppression, or fraud.
[For specific provisions, see CACI Nos. 3940-3949.]
New September 2003; Revised April 2008, June 2016, December 2016, January
Directions for Use
Special verdict form CACI No. VF-1700, Defamation per se (Public Offıcer/Figure
and Limited Public Figure), should be used in this type of case.
Use the bracketed element 3 only if the statement is not defamatory on its face (i.e.,
if the judge has not determined that the statement is defamatory as a matter of law).
For statutory grounds of defamation per se, see Civil Code sections 45 (libel) and
46 (slander). Note that certain specific grounds of libel per se have been defined by
case law.
An additional element of a defamation claim is that the alleged defamatory
statement is “unprivileged.” (Hui v. Sturbaum (2014) 222 Cal.App.4th 1109, 1118
[166 Cal.Rptr.3d 569].) If this element presents an issue for the jury, an instruction
on the “unprivileged” element should be given.
Under the common-interest privilege of Civil Code section 47(c), the defendant
bears the initial burden of showing facts to bring the communication within the
privilege. The plaintiff then must prove that the statement was made with malice.
(Lundquist v. Reusser (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1193, 1203 [31 Cal.Rptr.2d 776, 875 P.2d
1279].) If the common-interest privilege is at issue, give CACI No. 1723, Common
Interest Privilege - Malice. The elements of CACI No. 1723 constitute the
“unprivileged” element of this basic claim.
If the privilege of Civil Code section 47(d) for a privileged publication or broadcast
is at issue, give CACI No. 1724, Fair and True Reporting Privilege. (See J-M
Manufacturing Co., Inc. v. Phillips & Cohen LLP (2016) 247 Cal.App.4th 87 [201
Cal.Rptr.3d 782].) If some other privilege is at issue, an additional element or
instruction targeting that privilege will be required. (See, e.g., Civ. Code, § 47(b);
Argentieri v. Zuckerberg (2017) 8 Cal.App.5th 768, 780-787 [214 Cal.Rptr.3d 358]
[litigation privilege].)
Sources and Authority
Defamation. Civil Code section 44.
Libel Defined. Civil Code section 45.
Libel per se. Civil Code section 45a.
Slander Defined. Civil Code section 46.
“Defamation is the intentional publication of a statement of fact that is false,
unprivileged, and has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special
damage.” (Grenier v. Taylor (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 471, 486 [183 Cal.Rptr.3d
“The elements of a defamation claim are (1) a publication that is (2) false, (3)
defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and (5) has a natural tendency to injure or causes
special damage. ‘In general, . . . a written communication that is false, that is
not protected by any privilege, and that exposes a person to contempt or ridicule
or certain other reputational injuries, constitutes libel.’ The defamatory statement
must specifically refer to, or be “of [or] concerning,” the plaintiff.” (Jackson v.
Mayweather (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 1240, 1259 [217 Cal.Rptr.3d 234], internal
citations omitted.)
‘A statement is defamatory when it tends “directly to injure [a person] in
respect to [that person’s] office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing
to [the person] general disqualification in those respects which the office or other
occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to [the
person’s] office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to
lessen its profits.” (Issa v. Applegate (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 689, 702 [242
Cal.Rptr.3d 809], internal citation omitted.)
“In a case in which a plaintiff seeks to maintain an action for defamation by
implication, the plaintiff must demonstrate that (1) his or her interpretation of the
statement is reasonable; (2) the implication or implications to be drawn convey
defamatory facts, not opinions; (3) the challenged implications are not
“substantially true” ’; and (4) the identified reasonable implications could also
be reasonably deemed defamatory.” (Issa, supra, 31 Cal.App.5th at p. 707.)
‘If the person defamed is a public figure, he cannot recover unless he proves,
by clear and convincing evidence . . . , that the libelous statement was made
with ‘actual malice’ - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless
disregard of whether it was false or not.” ‘The rationale for such differential
treatment is, first, that the public figure has greater access to the media and
therefore greater opportunity to rebut defamatory statements, and second, that
those who have become public figures have done so voluntarily and therefore
“invite attention and comment.” (Jackson, supra, 10 Cal.App.5th at p. 1259,
footnotes and internal citations omitted.)
“[S]tatements cannot form the basis of a defamation action if they cannot be
reasonably interpreted as stating actual facts about an individual. Thus, rhetorical
hyperbole, vigorous epithets, lusty and imaginative expressions of contempt and
language used in a loose, figurative sense will not support a defamation action.”
(Grenier, supra, 234 Cal.App.4th at p. 486.)
“If no reasonable reader would perceive in a false and unprivileged
publication a meaning which tended to injure the subject’s reputation in any of
the enumerated respects, then there is no libel at all. If such a reader would
perceive a defamatory meaning without extrinsic aid beyond his or her own
intelligence and common sense, then . . . there is a libel per se. But if the
reader would be able to recognize a defamatory meaning only by virtue of his or
her knowledge of specific facts and circumstances, extrinsic to the publication,
which are not matters of common knowledge rationally attributable to all
reasonable persons, then . . . the libel cannot be libel per se but will be libel per
quod,” requiring pleading and proof of special damages.’ (Barker v. Fox &
Associates (2015) 240 Cal.App.4th 333, 351−352 [192 Cal.Rptr.3d 511].)
“A slander that falls within the first four subdivisions of Civil Code section 46 is
slander per se and requires no proof of actual damages. A slander that does not
fit into those four subdivisions is slander per quod, and special damages are
required for there to be any recovery for that slander.” (The Nethercutt
Collection v. Regalia (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 361, 367 [90 Cal.Rptr.3d 882],
internal citations omitted.)
“With respect to slander per se, the trial court decides if the alleged statement
falls within Civil Code section 46, subdivisions 1 through 4. It is then for the
trier of fact to determine if the statement is defamatory. This allocation of
responsibility may appear, at first glance, to result in an overlap of
responsibilities because a trial court determination that the statement falls within
those categories would seemingly suggest that the statement, if false, is
necessarily defamatory. But a finder of fact might rely upon extraneous evidence
to conclude that, under the circumstances, the statement was not defamatory.”
(The Nethercutt Collection, supra, 172 Cal.App.4th at pp. 368-369.)
“[T]he jury was instructed that if it found that defendant published matter that
was defamatory on its face and it found by clear and convincing evidence that
defendant knew the statement was false or published it in reckless disregard of
whether it was false, then the jury ‘also may award plaintiff presumed general
damages.’ Presumed damages ‘are those damages that necessarily result from the
publication of defamatory matter and are presumed to exist. They include
reasonable compensation for loss of reputation, shame, mortification, and hurt
feeling. No definite standard or method of calculation is prescribed by law by
which to fix reasonable compensation for presumed damages, and no evidence of
actual harm is required. Nor is the opinion of any witness required as to the
amount of such reasonable compensation. In making an award for presumed
damages, you shall exercise your authority with calm and reasonable judgment
and the damages you fix shall be just and reasonable in the light of the evidence.
You may in the exercise of your discretion award nominal damages only, namely
an insignificant sum such as one dollar.’ [¶] . . . [¶] . . . [T]he instant
instruction, which limits damages to ‘those damages that necessarily result from
the publication of defamatory matter,’ constitutes substantial compliance with
[Civil Code] section 3283. Thus, the instant instructions, ‘if obeyed, did not
allow the jurors to “enter the realm of speculation” regarding future suffering.’
(Sommer v. Gabor (1995) 40 Cal.App.4th 1455, 1472-1473 [48 Cal.Rptr.2d
235], internal citations omitted.)
“In defamation actions generally, factual truth is a defense which it is the
defendant’s burden to prove. In a defamation action against a newspaper by a
private person suing over statements of public concern, however, the First
Amendment places the burden of proving falsity on the plaintiff. As a matter of
constitutional law, therefore, media statements on matters of public interest,
including statements of opinion which reasonably imply a knowledge of facts,
‘must be provable as false before there can be liability under state defamation
law.’ (Eisenberg v. Alameda Newspapers (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 1359, 1382
[88 Cal.Rptr.2d 802], internal citations omitted.)
In matters involving public concern, the First Amendment protection applies to
nonmedia defendants, putting the burden of proving falsity of the statement on
the plaintiff. (Nizam-Aldine v. City of Oakland (1996) 47 Cal.App.4th 364, 375
[54 Cal.Rptr.2d 781].)
“Publication means communication to some third person who understands the
defamatory meaning of the statement and its application to the person to whom
reference is made. Publication need not be to the ‘public’ at large;
communication to a single individual is sufficient.” (Smith, supra, 72
Cal.App.4th at p. 645, internal citations omitted.)
“[W]hen a party repeats a slanderous charge, he is equally guilty of defamation,
even though he states the source of the charge and indicates that he is merely
repeating a rumor.” (Jackson v. Paramount Pictures Corp. (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th
10, 26 [80 Cal.Rptr.2d 1], internal citation omitted.)
“At common law, one who republishes a defamatory statement is deemed
thereby to have adopted it and so may be held liable, together with the person
who originated the statement, for resulting injury to the reputation of the
defamation victim. California has adopted the common law in this regard,
although by statute the republication of defamatory statements is privileged in
certain defined situations.” (Khawar v. Globe Internat. (1998) 19 Cal.4th 254,
268 [79 Cal.Rptr.2d 178, 965 P.2d 696], internal citations omitted.)
The general rule is that “a plaintiff cannot manufacture a defamation cause of
action by publishing the statements to third persons; the publication must be
done by the defendant.” There is an exception to this rule. [When it is
foreseeable that the plaintiff] ‘will be under a strong compulsion to disclose the
contents of the defamatory statement to a third person after he has read it or
been informed of its contents.’ (Live Oak Publishing Co. v. Cohagan (1991)
234 Cal.App.3d 1277, 1284 [286 Cal.Rptr. 198], internal citations omitted.)
Whether a plaintiff in a defamation action is a public figure is a question of law
for the trial court. (Readers Digest Assn. v. Superior Court (1984) 37 Cal.3d
244, 252 [208 Cal.Rptr. 137, 690 P.2d 610].)
“To qualify as a limited purpose public figure, a plaintiff ‘must have undertaken
some voluntary [affirmative] act[ion] through which he seeks to influence the
resolution of the public issues involved.’ (Rudnick v. McMillan (1994) 25
Cal.App.4th 1183, 1190 [31 Cal.Rptr.2d 193]; see also Mosesian v. McClatchy
Newspapers (1991) 233 Cal.App.3d 1685, 1689 [285 Cal.Rptr. 430].)
“Characterizing a plaintiff as a limited purpose public figure requires the
presence of certain elements. First, there must be a public controversy about a
topic that concerns a substantial number of people. In other words, the issue was
publicly debated. Second, the plaintiff must have voluntarily acted to influence
resolution of the issue of public interest. To satisfy this element, the plaintiff
need only attempt to thrust himself or herself into the public eye. Once the
plaintiff places himself or herself in the spotlight on a topic of public interest,
his or her private words and acts relating to that topic become fair game.
However, the alleged defamation must be germane to the plaintiff’s participation
in the public controversy.” (Grenier, supra, 234 Cal.App.4th at p. 484, internal
citations omitted.)
“The First Amendment limits California’s libel law in various respects. When, as
here, the plaintiff is a public figure, he cannot recover unless he proves by clear
and convincing evidence that the defendant published the defamatory statement
with actual malice, i.e., with ‘knowledge that it was false or with reckless
disregard of whether it was false or not.’ Mere negligence does not suffice.
Rather, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the author ‘in fact entertained serious
doubts as to the truth of his publication,’ or acted with a ‘high degree of
awareness of . . . probable falsity.’ (Masson v. New Yorker Magazine (1991)
501 U.S. 496, 510 [111 S.Ct. 2419, 115 L.Ed.2d 447], internal citations omitted;
see St. Amant v. Thompson (1968) 390 U.S. 727, 731 [88 S.Ct. 1323, 20 L.Ed.2d
262]; New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 U.S. 254, 279-280 [84 S.Ct. 710,
11 L.Ed.2d 686].)
The New York Times v. Sullivan standard applies to private individuals with
respect to presumed or punitive damages if the statement involves a matter of
public concern. (Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) 418 U.S. 323, 349 [94 S.Ct.
2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789].)
“California . . . permits defamation liability so long as it is consistent with the
requirements of the United States Constitution.” (Melaleuca, Inc. v. Clark (1998)
66 Cal.App.4th 1344, 1359 [78 Cal.Rptr.2d 627], citing Brown v. Kelly
Broadcasting Co. (1989) 48 Cal.3d 711, 740-742 [257 Cal.Rptr. 708, 771 P.2d
“Actual malice under the New York Times standard should not be confused with
the concept of malice as an evil intent or a motive arising from spite or ill
will. . . . In place of the term actual malice, it is better practice that jury
instructions refer to publication of a statement with knowledge of falsity or
reckless disregard as to truth or falsity.” (Masson, supra, 501 U.S. at pp.
510-511, internal citations omitted.)
Actual malice “does not require that the reporter hold a devout belief in the truth
of the story being reported, only that he or she refrain from either reporting a
story he or she knows to be false or acting in reckless disregard of the truth.”
(Jackson, supra, 68 Cal.App.4th at p. 35.)
“The law is clear [that] the recklessness or doubt which gives rise to actual or
constitutional malice is subjective recklessness or doubt.” (Melaleuca, Inc.,
supra, 66 Cal.App.4th at p. 1365.)
To show reckless disregard, “[t]here must be sufficient evidence to permit the
conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of
his publication. Publishing with such doubts shows reckless disregard for truth or
falsity and demonstrates actual malice.” (St. Amant, supra, 390 U.S. at p. 731.)
‘A defamation plaintiff may rely on inferences drawn from circumstantial
evidence to show actual malice. [Citation.] “A failure to investigate [fn. omitted]
[citation], anger and hostility toward the plaintiff [citation], reliance upon sources
known to be unreliable [citations], or known to be biased against the plaintiff
[citations] - such factors may, in an appropriate case, indicate that the publisher
himself had serious doubts regarding the truth of his publication.” (Sanders v.
Walsh (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 855, 873 [162 Cal.Rptr.3d 188].)
“[Evidence] of negligence, of motive and of intent may be adduced for the
purpose of establishing, by cumulation and by appropriate inferences, the fact of
a defendant’s recklessness or of his knowledge of falsity.” [Citations.] A failure
to investigate [citation], anger and hostility toward the plaintiff [citation],
reliance upon sources known to be unreliable [citations], or known to be biased
against the plaintiff [citations] - such factors may, in an appropriate case,
indicate that the publisher himself had serious doubts regarding the truth of his
publication. [¶] We emphasize that such evidence is relevant only to the extent
that it reflects on the subjective attitude of the publisher. [Citations.] The failure
to conduct a thorough and objective investigation, standing alone, does not prove
actual malice, nor even necessarily raise a triable issue of fact on that
controversy. [Citations.] Similarly, mere proof of ill will on the part of the
publisher may likewise be insufficient. [Citation.]’ (Young v. CBS Broadcasting,
Inc. (2012) 212 Cal.App.4th 551, 563 [151 Cal.Rptr.3d 237], quoting Readers
Digest Assn.,supra, 37 Cal.3d at pp. 257-258, footnote omitted.)
“An entity other than a natural person may be libeled.” (Live Oak Publishing
Co., supra, 234 Cal.App.3d at p. 1283.)
“A political challenger must be afforded leeway to characterize the conduct of
his opponent, even if such characterization takes the most negative perspective,
in order to ensure ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate on public issues.
Again, ‘[h]yperbole, distortion, invective, and tirades’ are ‘a part of American
politics,’ and while providing protection for such speech may allow ‘candidates
and their supporters to express . . . the most vile sentiments,’ it is nevertheless
necessary in order to ensure the ‘opportunity to criticize and comment upon
government and the issues of the day.’ (Issa, supra, 31 Cal.App.5th at p. 709,
internal citation omitted.)
Secondary Sources
5 Witkin, Summary of California Law (11th ed. 2017) Torts, §§ 623-654, 705-718
Chin et al., California Practice Guide: Employment Litigation, Ch. 5(I)-E,
Employment Torts And Related Claims - Defamation, ¶¶ 5:472, 5:577 (The Rutter
4 Levy et al., California Torts, Ch. 45, Defamation, §§ 45.04, 45.13 (Matthew
30 California Forms of Pleading and Practice, Ch. 340, Libel and Slander,
§§ 340.10 et seq. (Matthew Bender)
14 California Points and Authorities, Ch. 142, Libel and Slander (Defamation),
§§ 142.24-142.27 (Matthew Bender)
California Civil Practice: Torts §§ 21:1-21:2, 21:22-21:25, 21:44-21:52 (Thomson

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