Jonathan Vilma Goes to Court: An Overview of Defamation

Jonathan Vilma should probably go to law school and pass the bar with the amount of legal action he’s been seeing lately. Vilma’s latest lawsuit filed in U.S. District (Federal) Court in New Orleans claims that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not make a decision on the appeal to his suspension in a timely manner (Goodell upheld his own rulings on July 3). Vilma has also filed for an injunction setting aside his suspension while the legal issues play out. This is likely a move to allow him to continue rehabbing his injured knee at the Saints facilities with team doctors as well as allow him to play once the season starts. It’s likely these issues will take a number of months to resolve at the very least so if Vilma is granted the injunction, we will see him on the field come September.

Although it was not his most recent lawsuit, I am  going to explain how Vilma’s defamation suit may play out.

In order for a cause of action for defamation to exist, the following elements must be proven:

  1. A false and defamatory statement about the plaintiff was made;
  2. The statement was published to a third party (someone other than the plaintiff);
  3. If the statement is of public concern then at least negligence on the part of the publisher, and damage to the plaintiff.

“Per se” defamation is also recognized by many jurisdictions. “Per se” defamation comes into play when there is, for example, an alleged attack on a person’s professional reputation, as Vilma claims is the case here.

According to the complaint, Vilma is suing Goodell for defamatory statements made in a March 2 press release, a March 2 report to all 32 NFL clubs (“club report”), a March 21 press release, and a March 21 club memorandum. Although Vilma is not mentioned by name in the March 21 press release, it is not necessary for a plaintiff to be mentioned by name to sue for defamation. Goodell refers to “leaders among the defensive players” and sine Vilma was the Captain of the Saints defense, it is sufficient to infer it was Vilma who he was referring to.

The complaint alleges the statements were “false and widely published and not privileged in any matter”. It also alleges that Goodell’s statements were made with “reckless of their truth or falsity and/or with malice.”

Vilma’s complaint also alleges that Goodell’s statements were slanderous “per se” because they injured Vilma’s professional reputation.

Vilma must show damages to complete his cause of action. The complaint alleges, “Goodell’s statements forever falsely taint and permanently damage Vilma, in the eyes of NFL Clubs, media, fans and sponsors, as a player who brazenly disregards NFL rules and intentionally attempts to injure his opponents.” It looks like all the bases are covered, however Goodell will also be able to raise defenses.

As I’ve heard over and over again, this case is going to be an uphill battle for Vilma and here is the reason why. If the case actually ends up going to trial, the primary defense Goodell will likely use is “Truth”. Vilma’s argument turns on the statements Goodell made being false. If Goodell can show sufficient evidence that support the truth of his statements, Vilma’s suit will be thrown out. Vilma however, claims Goodell  has not presented any direct evidence that there was a bounty program (Vilma’s opinion has not changed even after the recent meeting with Goodell for an appeal).

In addition, because Vilma is a public figure, he also has to prove the statements were made with “actual malice”. This means that Goodell must have made the statements with the knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard for the truth. This will make it much more difficult for Vilma to prevail.

Do you think Vilma will prevail in his action against Commissioner Goodell? Do you think this is primarily a PR battle against the NFL to show the public that Vilma is fighting every step of the way and so he must be innocent?

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About Rajiv Radia

Rajiv is a third year law student at American University - Washington College of Law in Washington DC and a long time sports fanatic.
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