DISCLAIMER: Connor Mighell (cmigbear) has graduated from law school, but is not licensed to practice law. Nothing in this article is to be understood as an offer of legal advice.
Well hi! You might know me as BEAR, that lovable scamp who wrote WWE Abridged a while ago. I left that behind to finish law school (which I officially did as of today), and now I’m in the throes of studying for the bar.
It’s not fun.
Wrestling is fun, though, and when wrestling and the law overlap like they have this week, I geek out a little bit. I’ve been following the CM Punk/Colt Cabana trial, and when the jury took all of two hours to decide the case in Punk and Cabana’s favor, I agreed with the outcome. In my opinion, Dr. Amann simply didn’t prove at trial that he had been defamed.
Before I endured my first-year torts class at law school, my basic working understanding of defamation was “when someone says mean things about someone else.” I would bet that many people understand defamation that way. But the legal definition of defamation is a lot more complicated than that, and every element of the definition must be proved to establish that someone is liable.
So I’m going to briefly run through the common law definition of defamation, and apply it to the facts in the Punk/Cabana case. I think you’ll agree at the end that the jury was absolutely right to find in their favor.
In a trial for defamation, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff; in other words, it was up to Amann’s attorneys to prove that Punk and Cabana defamed the good Doctor, rather that Punk and Cabana having to prove that they did not. In order to prove defamation, the plaintiff must show:
- The language that the defendant(s) used was defamatory in nature;
- The language was “of or concerning” the plaintiff;
- The language was published by the defendant to a third person; and
- The publication actually damaged the plaintiff’s reputation.
If the defamation involves a matter of public concern, the Constitution of the United States requires that the plaintiff additionally prove that:
- The language was false; and
- The defendant was at fault.
A bunch of that definition is legalese, so let me unpack it a little.
To start, language is defamatory in nature when it tends to adversely affect the plaintiff’s reputation. In the Punk/Cabana case, Punk’s statements on Colt Cabana’s podcast about Dr. Amann failing to adequately treat his medical problems would fit this definition. Punk’s accusations cast doubt on Amann’s ability to perform his job effectively. So what Punk said was definitely defamatory in nature – but remember, that’s only one element of defamation. In order to win his case, Amann’s attorneys needed to prove far more than that.
Moving on: were Punk’s statements to Cabana “of or concerning” Dr. Amann? Courts generally find that if a reasonable person would understand that defamatory language refers to the plaintiff, the language “concerns” the plaintiff. We’re all reasonable people here, and we all understand that when CM Punk talks about Dr. Amann, he means the Dr. Amann who works for WWE – not neurosurgeon Dr. John Amann from Winter Park, FL, for instance.
Next, publication of defamatory language just means communicating that language to another person who understands it, and it can be done intentionally or negligently. A podcast is a means of publishing language, so Punk’s defamatory statements were published by Colt Cabana the instant he uploaded their interview.
Only one more element of defamation to go, it would seem. Surely Dr. Amann has Punk and Cabana dead to rights now.
As Lee Corso would say: not so fast! Dr. Amann still needs to prove that Punk’s statements, as published by Cabana, actually damaged his reputation. If the defamation is libel – meaning the publication of defamatory language in print – general damages like emotional distress, pain, and suffering are presumed. However, in the case of slander – spoken defamation – the plaintiff must prove that he suffered some monetary loss in order to establish damages. The plaintiff doesn’t need to prove that, though, if the defamatory statements placed his conduct in a business or profession in a bad light (among other things).
You probably see where this is going: Punk’s statements on Cabana’s podcast were slander because they were spoken, and because they placed Dr. Amann in a bad light based on his work with WWE, Cabana and Punk are sunk. Except, given today’s verdict, they’re not. Why not?
First of all, most courts treat defamation in radio programs as libel, not slander. A podcast is quite similar to a radio show, and so it’s possible that the Illinois court might have assessed Punk’s comments as libel rather than slander, and instructed the jury to do the same. In any case, Amann decided not to seek general damages for emotional distress, so Punk could not be liable for libel.
What if the jury took Punk’s comments as slander, though? If that’s the case, Dr. Amann has no one to blame but himself for his court loss, as he testified on the second day of his trial that “Punk’s allegations didn’t impact his reputation at work or change wrestlers’ views of him.” Amann himself testified that his reputation in his daily business was not damaged by Punk, and thus he cannot prove defamation merely by referring to “derogatory social media posts and signs at WWE shows directed at [him].”
But let’s say the jury did find that Punk and Cabana damaged Amann’s reputation. Our analysis is STILL not over! (See what I meant about defamation being complicated?)
Arguably, Punk’s defamatory comments on Cabana’s show about Dr. Amann were about a “matter of public concern.” Punk, Cabana, and Amann are all famous or notorious in some way, which means that they are “public figures” under the law. Therefore, in order to find Punk and Cabana guilty of defamation, Amann also had to prove that Punk’s statements were knowingly false or made in reckless disregard for the truth. Not only that, but he needed to establish that Cabana published Punk’s false statements knowingly or recklessly.
Dr. Amann straightforwardly did not make the case that Punk’s statements were false, or that Cabana knew they were false. He only sought to establish that his reputation among WWE fans had been affected in a way that did not have any discernible effect on his livelihood. That alone is not enough to prove defamation under the law, and in this case the jury agreed.
In closing, congratulations on making it all the way through this monstrosity of an article. I hope you learned something! Let me know what you think in the comments below, and I’ll see you around.