The Statute of Limitations in Defamation Cases

Generally, the statute of limitations in a defamation case begins running at the time of publication. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for a defamation claim is three years. G.L. c. 260, § 4.

However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently held that the “discovery rule” tolls, or pauses, the statute of limitations until “the plaintiff discovers or with reasonable diligence should have discovered that (1) he has suffered harm; (2) his harm was caused by the conduct of another; and (3) the defendant is the person who caused that harm.” Harrington v. Costello, SJC-11383, slip op. (Apr. 9, 2014). Although the court did not find these three elements were met in Harrington, this ruling may allow future plaintiffs extra time to bring their defamation suits.

In Harrington, a Roman Catholic priest brought a suit against two other priests of his parish. The plaintiff claimed that the defendants fabricated and published defamatory statements that a parishioner had accused the plaintiff of stalking her minor son. The plaintiff argued that under the discovery rule, the statute of limitations did not begin accruing until he learned that the defendants had made up the stalking complaint. He argued that as long as he believed that a parishioner had made such a complaint, he had no cause of action, because the defendant priests could have been privileged in the publication of the otherwise defamatory statement.

The court agreed that the discovery rule can apply to defamation cases. However, the court disagreed with the plaintiff’s claim that he did not know that the defendants were the cause of the harm. The plaintiff knew that they had published the statement. That was enough, in the court’s eyes. It did not matter that the plaintiff thought that the defendants might be privileged in their statement—that was a legal defense that the defendants would prove, not part of the plaintiff’s cause of action. “[A]ccrual under the discovery rule is not delayed until a plaintiff learns that he was legally harmed.” Id.

We see many people who fail to act on their legal claims until it is too late. The discovery rule may toll the accrual of the statute of limitations, but the statute of limitations does cut off otherwise viable claims. If you have questions or concerns about your legal rights or possible liabilities, contact the attorneys at Hutchins Law, P.C. today.

The purpose of this article is to inform our clients of developments in the law and to provide information of general interest. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or to assume a client relationship. The content of this article could be considered advertising under the rules of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Copyright © 2012 Hutchins Law, P.C. All Rights Reserved.