Last Update: 03/16/16
Defamation (libel or slander) lawsuits are being filed more and more often these days (see our injury blog for more details); most people are aware of these type of lawsuits where a party seeks damages for harm done to their reputation. However most people don’t know that in Florida there is a basis for a lawsuit involving slander claims for injuries caused to the “reputation” of Florida land, or real estate.
These lawsuits are brought as “slander of title” or “disparagement of title” claims, and they have been respected by Florida court for many years. Here, the false statement is about land, not a person, but it still results in real harm to the plaintiff who is allowed to seek legal redress from the defendant upon sufficient proof of the cause of action.
As explained by one Florida appellate court:
Libel and slander involve defamation of personal reputation. “Slander of title” involves defamation of property interests. Old Plantation Corp. v. Maule Industries, Inc., 68 So.2d 180 (Fla. 1953). Florida courts have repeatedly recognized the interplay between libel and slander on the one hand, and “slander of title” on the other. Indeed, the statute of limitations applicable to libel and slander has been held applicable to “slander of title”. Carey v. Beyer, 75 So.2d 217 (Fla. 1954); Old Plantation Corp. v. Maule Industries, Inc., supra.
Florida courts have also acknowledged that a defendant in a “slander of title” action enjoys the same privilege which he would enjoy, under the same circumstances, in a libel action. Gates v. Utsey, 177 So.2d 486 (Fla. 1st DCA 1965).
— Sailboat Key, Inc. v. Gardner, 378 So. 2d 47 (Fla. 3d DCA 1979).
What is a Florida slander of title lawsuit?
As we mentioned, a Florida slander of title claim is a lawsuit filed in a Florida court, where damages are sought based upon harm done to someone’s property. According to the longstanding case of Bothmann v. Harrington, in these cases:
“[T]he plaintiff must allege and prove the following elements:
(1) A falsehood
(2) has been published, or communicated to a third person
(3) when the defendant-publisher knows or reasonably should know that it will likely result in inducing others not to deal with the plaintiff and
(4) in fact, the falsehood does play a material and substantial part in inducing others not to deal with the plaintiff; and
(5) special damages are proximately caused as a result of the published falsehood.”
In Bothmann, for example, the lawsuit was filed because Mr. Bothmann alleged he was damaged because a false notice of lis pendens was filed in the Florida public real estate records concerning his condominium, giving incorrect and untrue information that his condo was involved in a lawsuit. It was not, and he first sued to get the notice removed from the real estate records and then he sued for slander of title damages.
What damages are available in a Florida slander of title or disparagement of title lawsuit?
1. Actual Damages
For slander of title lawsuits, Florida law requires some specific proof in how the plaintiff land owner has been harmed by the false statements made about or against the property. As explained in the case of Falic v. Legg Mason Wood Walker, Inc., only those financial losses that are the “direct and immediate result of the falsehood’s effect on the conduct of third parties” as well as the expenses incurred to fix the problem, or to “counteract the publication” can be awarded under Florida law. Additionally, these damages must be shown to be “foreseeable and normal consequences of the alleged wrongful conduct, and the conduct must be a substantial factor in bringing about the losses.”
What does this mean? Well, a “possible” lost sale without any proof a potential buyer might not meet the standards here, but with admissible proof that a land owner had to pay a certain amount in attorneys’ fees to get a fake notice of lis pendens removed from land title records (like Mr. Bothmann) would be recoverable damages.
2. Punitive Damages
There are situations where someone intentionally does a bad thing to another person, or acts “with malice.” In Florida law, “malice” supporting the additional award of “punishment” or “punitive” damages is defined as:
“How malice is defined, however, is another matter. Malice as a basis for recovery of actual damages, as distinguished from punitive damages should mean that the act or refusal was deliberate conduct without reasonable cause. See, 8 Institute on Oil and Gas, 357. Malice as a basis for recovery of punitive damages should mean actual malice, that is, ill will, bad or evil motive, or such gross indifference to or reckless disregard of the rights of others as will amount to a wilful or wanton act… .”
— Collier County Publishing Co., Inc. v. Chapman, 318 So. 2d 492, 495 – Fla. 2d DCA (1975), citing Kidd v. Hoggett, 331 S.W.2d 515 (Tex. Civ. App. – 1960).
Which means that, yes — there are situations where a defendant may be held liable for punitive damages to a plaintiff for slander of title. When would that be? The defendant must be shown to have acted in a manner that meets the definition of “ill will, bad or evil motive, or such gross indifference to or reckless disregard of the rights of others as will amount to a willful or wanton act.”
For example, a condominium association places a false filing in the real estate records of a condo owner and then fails or refuses to help fix the error even though the association is well aware that the false filing is hurting the owner. That might get the association liable for some punitive or punishment damages from a Florida jury.
How much can punitive damages be in a slander of title case?
Damages for any case are dependent upon the facts and circumstances of that case. However, in the case of TXO Production Corp. v. Alliance Resources Corp., a punitive damage award of $10,000,000 in a West Virginia slander of title case was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
A good piece of advice is to at least speak with an experienced Florida real estate lawyer to learn about your rights. Most real estate lawyers, like Larry Tolchinsky, offer a free initial consultation (over the phone or in person, whichever you prefer) to answer your questions.
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