Nine Defamation Cases That Will Leave You Speechless

As a law firm with nearly a dozen civil litigation attorneys, we are often asked about defamation cases. These cases receive attention from the media and loom large in courtroom dramas and the public imagination.

What exactly is defamation? Defamation occurs when a person makes an untrue statement about another individual, either verbally (slander) or in writing (libel), to a third party and the statement causes the individual damage.


  1. Parsons v. Bridgman

One of the first defamation trials in North America occurred in 1656. At issue in the case, Sarah Bridgman accused her neighbor, Mary Parsons, of witchcraft. Mary’s husband, Joseph, sued Sarah for spreading rumors that Mary was involved in the occult. Mary and Joseph accused Sarah of being jealous of Joseph’s successful brick and chimney business. The court ruled in favor of Mary. Sarah was ordered to make a public apology, pay a fine, and court costs.

As a side note: Mary was later charged with witchcraft almost 20 years later and acquitted by a Boston jury. After the acquittal, the Parsons family moved to Springfield, where rumors of witchcraft would continue to follow them.


  1. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

In 1964, a libel case was filed by the Montgomery, Alabama police commissioner against the New York times over an advertisement published by the times which contained some false statements about the police commissioner. The commissioner demanded a retraction based on the damage done to his reputation as a police official, however, the Supreme Court decided that for what was printed to be considered libelous, it needed to have been “published with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.” Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who authored the Court’s opinion, began by explaining that criticizing government and public officials was at the core of the American constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.


  1. McDonald’s v. Steel and Morris (The McLibel Case)

In another British case taking place in 1997, often referred to as the McLibel case, Helen Steel and David Morris were part of London Greenpeace and distributed cheaply produced leaflets attacking the fast food giant McDonald’s.  They alleged that McDonald’s exploited its workforce, harmed animals, and issued misleading advertising.  During trial, McDonald’s offered to settle the case if the pair would just stop issuing leaflets. The couple said that they would agree if McDonald’s would cease advertising. Needless to say, no settlement was reached, and McDonald’s won over $60,000 in damages. However, the original case, which lasted nearly 10 years, cost McDonald’s significantly more than $60,000 in legal fees and costs.


  1. Alex Jones

Marking one of the largest defamation awards in U.S. history, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was ordered to pay approximately $1 billion in actual damages to the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting. This verdict was entered after he spread lies and misinformation about the event and those involved on his American far-right conspiracy theory and fake news website InfoWars. He included the false narrative that both the victims and their families were paid actors.

The case, presided over by Connecticut Judge Barbara Bellis, sent a strong message about the viability of Jones’ political style, though it may not necessarily discourage others from continuing on the same path. On November 10, 2022, Judge Bellis added $473 million in punitive damages, bringing the total Jones owes to just under $1.5 billion. Jones has since filed bankruptcy, however, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Christopher Lopez has ruled that bankruptcy cannot be used to wipe out debts and legal judgments if they result from “willful or malicious injury”. Lopez ruled that more than $1.1 billion of Jones’ verdict cannot be wiped away. It is unclear whether the punitive damages will be considered to have resulted from willful or malicious injury. Jones has publicly stated that he does not have the money to pay the damages.


  1. Depp v. Heard

In a recent high-profile case that was widely debated across the internet, Johnny Depp was awarded a $10 million settlement in his suit against Amber Heard, who was awarded $2 million herself.

The ex-couple accused each other of ruining the other’s life and reputation during a weekslong trial that culminated in May 2022, sparking debates about potential domestic abuse perpetrated by both parties. The lawsuit stemmed from a 2018 Washington Post op-ed authored by Heard addressing how women who speak up against domestic violence are treated in the U.S.


  1. Gibsons Bakery v. Oberlin College

This defamation case was sparked by shoplifting at Gibson’s Bakery, which led to allegations that the small business was practicing racial profiling. The day after the shoplifting incident, faculty and hundreds of students gathered in a park across the street from the Bakery in protest of the shoplifting incident, stating that Bakery employees engaged in racial profiling and excessive force. The summer of 2019 ended a yearslong ordeal for Gibson’s Bakery, when it was awarded $44.4 million for libel perpetrated by Oberlin College. This award was reduced to $25 million due to a cap on punitive damages in the state of Ohio. The jury verdict was upheld by the Ninth Ohio District Court of Appeals and in 2022, Oberlin College paid Gibson’s bakery $36.59 million, the sum of the judgment plus interest.


  1. Favre v. Sharp

Brett Favre, a hall of fame NFL player, was allegedly connected to a welfare funds scandal in the State of Mississippi. This scandal was a hot topic in the media recently, and Shannon Sharpe, a fellow professional football hall of famer, stated that Favre had “stole money from people that really needed that money” when commenting on Favre’s alleged role in the welfare fraud scandal. Favre proceeded to sue Sharpe for defamation, saying that Sharpe’s statements were “egregiously false”. In October of 2023, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit ruling that Sharpe’s statements were constitutionally protected speech.


  1. Diaz v. National Enquirer

In 2005 Actress Cameron Diaz sued American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer after the tabloid wrote a story that claimed she was having an affair with an MTV producer, Shane Nickerson, who worked on Cameron’s reality show “Trippin.” At the time, Cameron Diaz was in a relationship with Justin Timberlake. The tabloid’s story showed a photo of Cameron Diaz and Shane Nickerson together outside of a sound studio in Los Angeles. In 2007, the National Enquirer settles the lawsuit with Cameron Diaz out of court. The amount of the settlement remains undisclosed.


  1. British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh

In 2008, Simon Singh, a writer for the Guardian, published a story titled “Beware the Spinal Trap” criticizing chiropractic practices. Simon’s article mirrored the theme of his book “Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial” which made various statements about the lack of usefulness of chiropractic treatment for things such as ear infections and asthma. A defamation case was then brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon. Because the article in the Guardian came about when many individuals were beginning to use social media such as Twitter, there was unprecedented media coverage of the questionable claims of chiropractic treatments. After the initial court ruling, Simon appealed to three senior judges on the Court of Appeal, and the ruling was overturned. The British Chiropractic Association withdrew their libel action shortly after, resulting in the end of the case.