Following Jack Clark’s claim that Albert Pujols used performance-enhancing drugs last week, Pujols told reporters that he planned to take legal action against Clark, presumably for defamation. He shouldn’t. And it has nothing to with whether he, in fact, took PEDs or not. It has everything to do with the nature of defamation cases.
There is a lot to lose when you sue for defamation, even if you are telling the truth and the person you are suing did, in fact, lie. For one thing, defamation cases are hard to win. This is especially true when the plaintiff is a public figure as Pujols is. That’s because Pujols would have to prove that Clark’s statements were made with “actual malice”. That means that Pujols would have to prove that Clark either knew his comments to be false or said them with reckless disregard as to their truth. Proving that Clark had the requisite malice when mistake, stupidity or mere attention-seeking is so much simpler an explanation for a guy in Clark’s place is an insanely tall order, the sort of which usually requires some sort of documented knowledge on the part of the person in Clark’s position. You can’t win these on a he-said, he-said basis, and so far that’s what this all sounds like. No matter the case, actual malice is an extraordinary barrier to hurdle. While it does happen occasionally, it truly is newsworthy when a celebrity like Pujols prevails on a defamation claim.
A second problem for Pujols is more of a practical one than a legal one and that’s the inescapable fact that defamation lawsuits often create bigger audiences for the false statements than the false statements enjoyed in the first place. We who follow baseball closely all know what happened with Clark and Pujols last week. If there is a lawsuit wider sports media and possibly even general news and entertainment media will begin to cover it. People who had no idea that there was even a question about Pujols and PEDs will suddenly be reading news reports that — in the interests of appearing to be balanced — will lead with “Did the former MVP take steroids? One man says he did!” It’s totally unfair to a wronged person, but if the matter truly is about the subject’s reputation with the public, the subject is usually better served by letting the story die than he is by trying to vindicate his legal rights. This was the most common advice I’d give potential clients back when I used to handle defamation cases and it was the most common reason for them to decide not to sue.
Finally, there is what I feel is the biggest problem with a lawsuit: the possibility of, perversely, making the world believe Clark’s statements are true even if they aren’t.
Say Pujols sues. And say he loses the case, not because he fails to prove that Clark lied maliciously, but for the reason a lot of cases are lost: technicalities. Failures having to do with something other than the main issue. He can’t prove damages, say. Or it gets dismissed for some other reason, the possibilities of which are several. The savvy and the legally-trained among us may appreciate that the loss was on something other than the merits but most people will merely see “Pujols sued Clark, Clark won the case, ergo Clark was telling the truth.” Lost in all of that will be the fact that there are a lot of ways someone can lie about another without being successfully sued for it. The history of this little story will always end with “Pujols was unsuccessful in his lawsuit against Clark.”
Reputation is everything. When one damages another’s reputation it can hurt like nothing else. Unfortunately, especially for the famous, there is very little upside to actually filing a lawsuit when one is truly defamed. Even worse than that is that there’s a no-win angle to all of this: if Pujols agrees there is no upside and decides not to sue Clark, many will say “See, he didn’t sue! Clark must be telling the truth!”
That would stink. But it stinks way less than the other options in front of him.