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Does homeowners insurance protect against libel and slander?

Step away from the keyboard -  attacking someone with untrue information, even on Facebook, may put the average homeowner at risk from lawsuits.

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If you’ve spent enough time on Facebook or read enough blogs, you’ve seen writers and even friends publicly air their grievances for all to see.

But while it may seem like the Wild West out there in their era of fake news – there are some rules to follow. Some speech is protected but going too far and attacking someone with untrue information may put the average homeowner at risk from lawsuits. And your homeowners insurance may not offer you the protection you may need.

First, let’s look at the terminology and what it all means. Libel is a false and damaging statement that’s been published and damages one’s reputation. What qualifies as written, published content? More than you think - including a letter to the editor, blog post, comments on a blog post, Internet chat rooms, and yes, even on Facebook or a social media channel. Libel claims typically accuse the writer of intentionally lying or recklessly disregarding the truth.

A libel lawsuit may can bring significant legal costs if you’re on the receiving end of it.

 Slander involves the spoken word. Slander lawsuits are more often seen in broadcast media, but it could also involve a conversation within your own home if you, or a family member, says something harmful and untrue that damages someone’s reputation.

Both libel and slander fall under defamation, which means that it harms the good reputation of someone else and can cause them significant damage, including financial.

Loretta Worters, vice president of Communications at the Insurance Information Institute, says there is an increase in these types of lawsuits. Unfortunately, when you recklessly speak ill of someone in a public forum, it can have financial repercussions for you.

“I think people need to be careful about what they're saying,” Worters said. “It's a very litigious society nowadays.”

Bloggers have seen an increase in lawsuits against them. In 2011, there was $47 million in defamation lawsuits against those who wrote blogs (up from $17 million in 2009), according to a Media Law Resource Center in a Fox News report. InsuraMatch emailed MLRC for updated data, which was unavailable as of deadline.

While your homeowners policy offers some protection, most likely it isn’t enough. Insurance experts first recommend you sign a personal-injury endorsement on your homeowners policy, which will offer some coverage if the alleged slander or libel was unintentional, according to coverhound.com. Experts also recommend homeowners take out an umbrella policy, which will offer more protection to cover personal injury, Coverhound adds.

Things get more complicated when you blog or write articles professionally, Worters adds. If you’re trying to make an income from your writings, this may put you into a professional category where commercial insurance, or a separate libel insurance policy, is recommended. Your homeowners or umbrella insurance policy may not protect you if your blog falls under this category (much in the same way as your personal automobile policy may not cover you if you’re in an accident while using your car for your business). As always, you should consult with your insurance agent and possibly even an attorney, to guarantee you are properly covered.

According to New Media Rights, an independently funded non-profit program of California Western School of Law, people should practice care in what they post online. Some tips include:

  • Think twice before hitting that post button. It’s always best to read through it carefully to make sure it’s accurate and could be interpreted in the way you meant it.
  • Be specific. Avoid ambiguity.
  • Take a breather. Never post something when angry or emotional.
  • Double check facts. We’ve all heard about the “fake news” that out there. Corroborate your information with reputable sources and publications.
  • Give the reader essential details. Be clear when you’re posting opinion, humor, or facts.
  • Avoid accusations. If someone isn’t charged with a crime than don’t imply they are a criminal. Also, be wary of associating people with certain groups, such as hate groups.
  • Private Citizens have more protections. Private individuals generally have more legal recourse than political leaders and celebrities. Be extra careful what you post!

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