CACI 1700 Defamation per se—Essential Factual Elements (Public Officer/Figure and Limited Public Figure)

California Civil Jury Instructions CACI

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 2018

Crowdsource Lawyers

Directions for Use

Special verdict form CACI No. VF-1700, Defamation per se (Public Officer/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 867].)

“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. (Reader’s 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 406].)

“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 Reader’s 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 Group)
4 Levy et al., California Torts, Ch. 45, Defamation, §§ 45.04, 45.13 (Matthew Bender)
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 Reuters)