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Teacher Gets $363K for Students' Lies, Defamation

Two California students and their parents are being held financially liable for the defamation of a teacher.

Former Catholic school physical education teacher John Fischler, 49, filed the defamation lawsuit after two schoolgirls branded him a "perv" and "creeper," and spread false rumors that he'd inappropriately touched kids and peeked into a girls' restroom at Holy Spirit School in San Jose.

After being cleared of the allegations, Fischler was awarded $362,653 in compensatory damages. Punitive damages are soon to follow.

Compensatory Defamation Damages

In most states, a plaintiff must prove the defamatory statement caused him or her actual damage. Actual damages include such things as the loss of a job because of the defamatory statement, but can also include mental anguish or suffering associated with the defamation.

California is among the states that recognize defamation "per se," which means damage is presumed if the defamatory statement:

  • Impugns a person's professional character or standing;
  • States or implies that an unmarried person is unchaste (e.g., is sexually active);
  • States or implies that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease; or
  • States or implies that the person has committed a crime of moral turpitude (e.g., theft or fraud).

Defamation victims can receive compensatory damages that may include out-of-pocket expenses as well as personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering, and lost wages and benefits if the defamation caused the plaintiff to lose employment.

In this case, a jury awarded Fischler the six-figure compensatory damages award after finding the families spread false statements about him that insinuated criminal conduct and damaged his reputation both personally and professionally, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

Punitive Defamation Damages

In limited circumstances, a plaintiff may also be able to recover punitive damages, which are awarded in addition to compensatory damages and are intended to punish the defendant.

Here, the Santa Clara County Superior Court panel found that one of the girls, who was 11 years old at the time, acted with malice and is liable for punitive damages. The jury will decide how much during the second phase of the trial, reports the Mercury News.

For parents and students, the case serves as a cautionary reminder: There's a difference between expressing actual safety concerns and gossip-mongering. The latter can cost you big-time.

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