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Q: Defamation of Character ( Answered,   3 Comments )
Subject: Defamation of Character
Category: Family and Home
Asked by: sjh-ga
List Price: $100.00
Posted: 10 Sep 2003 15:20 PDT
Expires: 10 Oct 2003 15:20 PDT
Question ID: 254368
My father died two weeks ago and I was accused of murdering him. He
was 82 and had a form of dementia, and he was living in my home in
North Carolina. I have been his caregiver for almost three years. Due
to family conflicts, last year he was deemed a ward of the court, with
a social agency as the guardian of his being and a bank as the
guardian of his estate.

He fell out of bed and twisted his spinal cord. He was in the hospital
for two days. After learning of his death, my sister in Louisiana had
her friend, a lawyer in West Virginia, send a letter to the cemetery
in Illinois to stop the burial because she believed there was “foul
play” and wanted an autopsy performed.

When I attended the funeral service on Saturday, I was not told that
my Dad was not being buried until after the service. Everyone there
knew, and acted strange toward me. When I learned what was happening I
was devastated. The fax the lawyer from WV sent to the funeral
director in IL stated “Re: Possible murder of …”

On Monday, I learned from the funeral director in Illinois that the
sheriff in my county in North Carolina had conducted a criminal
investigation, and that there was nothing to prevent his burial;
however, Illinois law requires all beneficiaries (there are four
sisters) to be in agreement and because one sister was still insisting
that an autopsy be performed he was not buried at the time of the
funeral service (which was Saturday).

A burial has now been planned for Tuesday, as the sister who wanted
the autopsy performed has changed her mind.

I have called the lieutenant who conducted the investigation, and I am
waiting to hear back from him. I have been trying to speak to a lawyer
in North Carolina but have not been able to connect with anyone, yet.
One of my career plans was to go into caregiving. I had also taken
care of my grandmother and have other caregiving experience. I am now
concerned that the investigation may have caused a “black mark” on my
future plans.

There are many more details, but I want to keep this concise. If you
need more information, please let me know. I would appreciate an
answer as soon as possible. Thank you.

Here are my questions:

Should I now insist that an autopsy be done? This would clear my name
proving that there was no “foul play.”

What action can I take against the lawyer in West Virginia? What
evidence is required for a lawyer to initiate possible murder charges?

Can I sue my sister for defamation of character?

If so, what type of attorney specializes in this field?
Subject: Re: Defamation of Character
Answered By: omniscientbeing-ga on 10 Sep 2003 23:34 PDT

First of all, you have my condolences on the loss of your father. Now,
allow me to provide my consensus of the situation as you have
described it, after which I'll answer all of your specific questions

Although last year the court took over your father's being and estate
(presumably because his dementia had progressed to a point where he
was deemed unable to take care of those matters himself), you remained
his primary caregiver and he lived in your home. This means that as of
one year ago the court found you to be a suitable caregiver (unless
they didn't know he was living with you for some reason--let me know
if this is the case).

Then, two weeks ago, your 82 year old father-- a ward of the court in
North Carolina and suffering from dementia-- fell out of his bed,
seriously injuring himself. He was taken to a hospital (the question
of who found him first and called 911 does come to mind, but I'm
assuming it's you) where doctors determined he had twisted his spinal
cord. He died two days later in the hospital, under the care of
physicians and nurses.

Although your sister (in a different state) had a lawyer (in yet
another state) write a letter of inquiry to the cemetery (in still
another state) regarding your father's death in an attempt have an
autopsy done, you were never formally accused of or charged with any
crime, nor was an autopsy ever conducted. The net result of your
sister's actions was to have the burial/funeral delayed until Tuesday.

You are now concerned about your reputation in general and as a
professional caregiver due to the fact that your sister's lawyer sent
a fax with the subject "Possible murder of.." and was generally quite
vocal about possible suspicious circumstances surrounding your
father's death while in your care at the time of his accident. You
felt uncomfortable at the funeral (when it finally happened after the
untimely delay) with people looking at you after your sister's
informal allegations.

Please correct me if I have made any incorrect assumptions in my
assessment, as it significantly affects my Answer.

Barring any omitted information or seriously incorrect assumptions I
have made due to my distance from the situation, I do not think you
have anything to worry about from a legal or professional standpoint.
Your father was very old and mentally ill. You cared for him a full
three years before the accident occurred, and let him live in your own
home. Falls of one type or another kill many seniors every year, not
to mention the fact that no charges were ever filed--not just against
you, but no charges of any kind have been filed  whatsoever
(correct?). There is nothing here--no case. And therefore, nothing for
you to worry about. The death of a parent is an extremely traumatic
and stressful life-event for all people, and many do not react well,
especially in the "denial" phase. Putting off the burial may well be
your sister's way of prolonging her denial that your father is no
longer with her, and so she acted out in whatever way she could think
of in order to delay his burial, if even for a short time.

Then, from a purely speculative, mystery-reader type of standpoint,
what would be your motive? Did you stand to gain financially from his
death? Even if you did, at the age of 82 you wouldn't have long to
wait anyway. Are you suffering from financial difficulties so extreme
that you would benefit immensely by receiving your share of his estate
a few years early?

Now let us consider your questions.

1) "Should I now insist that an autopsy be done? This would clear my
proving that there was no “foul play.” "

I do not suggest you request an autopsy. Any further attention to the
matter will only fuel your sister's efforts to drag things out and
focus the spotlight on you. "Let sleeping dogs lie" so to speak, and
allow your father to Rest In Peace. There is no reason to "clear your
name," since first of all you haven't done anything wrong, and second,
you haven't been charged with or formally accused of anything. I would
maintain an air of "My poor sister, she's very distraught over his
death," type of thing, and stay very calm, cool, collected and
forgiving (of her) during your grieving process. The fact that your
sister has changed her mind about the autopsy and that the burial is
planned for Tuesday shows that she realizes you haven't really done
anything wrong.

2)"What action can I take against the lawyer in West Virginia? What
evidence is required for a lawyer to initiate possible murder

I do not see that you have any "actions" to take against your sister's
lawyer friend. Further, I don't even see that he "initiated murder
charges" against you, which would be done by lawyers from your city's
District Attorney's office, anyway. A sheriff briefly investigated,
but found nothing and you were never charged (nor was anyone else,
because the death was determined to be accidental). Any time a person
dies, it is normal for police and other relevant parties, such as the
coroner, to ask a few questions. I think your best course of action is
to let it "blow over" so to speak, and ignore it, barring any further
legal developments involving yourself. To file formal charges, the
D.A. would usually require a motive (what would be your motive, as I
mentioned above), a murder weapon (pushing someone off a bed involves
no physical weapon and would be an awfully difficult thing to prove),
and at least one witness. It doesn't seem like any of those are
present here, but charges were not filed against you anyway.

3) Can I sue my sister for defamation of character? 

Keep in mind that you were not defamed in a public forum, such as in a
magazine, newspaper or on television (as most libel or slander cases
involve). What your sister says verbally in conversation among family
members and close friends will be very difficult to prove unless you
have recordings of it, and a facsimile from your sister's lawyer
friend to the cemetery hired to conduct your father's burial is fairly
private as well. However, your question was *can* you sue her, and
given our litigious society, I'd have to say that you might be able
to. I don't think you *should*, however, simply because, as I said
previously, it would just drag the whole matter out and give your
sister even more reason to continue to dredge up dirt against you. I
would let it go.

However, should you feel so inclined to look into the matter further,
here is a link to a general information site ( on libel/slander/defamation suits:

[ ]

Their definition/description of "defamation" is as follows:

"Defamation, sometimes called "defamation of character", is spoken or
written words that falsely and negatively reflect on a living person's
reputation. If a person or the news media says or writes something
about you that is understood to lower your reputation, or that keeps
people from associating with you, defamation has occurred. Slander and
libel are two forms of defamation."

Here is their definition of slander:

"Slander is a spoken defamation."

And their definition/description of "libel":

"Libel is a written defamation. Generally, radio and television
broadcasts that are defamatory are considered to be libel, rather than

In your situation, I suppose the fax could be considered libel, while
your sister's verbal accusations could be slander. Again, however,
lawsuits involving these types of defamation *usually* involve more
public settings with wider audiences, such as the media, or perhaps a
speech at a public assembly.

From the same legal site:

In order to prove defamation, you have to be able to prove that what
was said or written about you was false. If the information is true,
or if you consented to publication of the material, you will not have
a case. However, you may bring an defamatory action if the comments
are so reprehensible and false that they effect your reputation in the
community or cast aspersions on you."

It would seem to me that your "case" is not on a scale that most
lawyers who handle defamation suits would take, but given the gravely
serious nature of the accusations against you, you *may* have a case
against your sister.

From the same site:

If you have been defamed you may seek both actual damages, to recover
the harm that you have suffered, and punitive damages to punish the
person who made the remark (and serve as an example to deter others).
If the defamation improperly accused you of a crime or reflected on
your profession, the Court or jury can assess the damages. For other
types of defamation you must prove some actual damage to be able to

This would be good for you to read in more detail (from []

"WHAT ARE THE DEFENSES TO A LIBEL CLAIM? [i.e., what your sister would
likely do in her defense if she were sued by you for defamation]:
There are three main defenses to a libel claim (other than asserting
that it never happened or that you were never involved): ...The third
defense is claiming, and proving, that the statement was an opinion,
not an assertion of a fact. Since this last defense is only as good as
the weakest or worst, but still reasonable, misinterpretation, it's
not one you really want to rely on. There's a world of difference
between saying "I think he's a crook," and "he's a crook". Especially
if a third party might inadvertently leave out the first two words
when passing your message on."

And finally, (from the same site):

In order to prove defamation, you have to be able to prove that what
was said or written about you was false. If the information is true,
or if you consented to publication of the material, you will not have
a case. However, you may bring a defamatory action if the comments are
so reprehensible and false that they effect your reputation in the
community or cast aspersions on you."

4) If so, what type of attorney specializes in this field?

They're called, believe it or not, "libel and slander

Here is a link to's page on libel/slander lawyers
for your state of North Carolina:

[ ]

One page back from that is the main libel/slander lawyer directory

[ ]

[ ]

Google search strategy:
“personal defamation suits”:

“libel slander law”:

“libel slander attorneys”:

I certainly hope that this will help you to deal with this most
pressing and difficult time. If any of the assumptions I have made are
incorrect to the point that it severely impacted my Answer, please let
me know in a Clarification. Do not hesitate to ask for Clarification
on anything I have written here.

I wish you the best of luck in resolving this matter to everyone’s
mutual satisfaction, and again—my condolences on the loss of your




Here is a link to the Google search results page for keywords "loss of
father grieving process", on which you may find links to pages that
cope with the grieving process, which may be of help to both you and
your family (including your sister) at this time:
[Note: click the "similar pages" link under any link that you found to
be particularly useful and would like more of]


Here is a link to a page that outlines the true purpose of a funeral,
and how they begin the "transformative process":

Request for Answer Clarification by sjh-ga on 03 Oct 2003 14:18 PDT
Although I appreciate the response to my involved question, I was a
little disappointed with the response by omniscientbeing. The answer
focuses more on the ethical/religious aspects of family dynamics and
seemed more opinion than fact. The second response was much more
helpful in providing me with legal information; however, I still feel
that the problem was not addressed in full.

Since this question involves jurisdictional and “choice of law”
problems, I need an answer from a lawyer who has the ability to
practice or get information pertaining to North Carolina, Louisiana,
West Virginia, and Illinois.

I have learned that since an investigation was made by the county
sheriff’s office that this claim is “on record” and I need to have it
expunged. I was told by the investigating officer that a lie-detector
test could clear this all up. Why would the officer even suggest that
if the investigation was closed? I really need some answers. How do I
get them?

Additionally this claim of possible murder has escalated to the murder
of others that were in my care, and has traveled through the sheriff’s
office to other facilities. The anguish has been overwhelming, causing
me mental stress and much distress to the point that I have sought
mental health counseling. What type of lawyer would assist with this?
As I stated before, I am in the caregiver profession and this claim of
murder can have a serious effect on future employment.

Clarification of Answer by omniscientbeing-ga on 03 Oct 2003 15:59 PDT

I'm sorry you're not entirely satisfied with your Answer. Please
realize that in the 3 weeks time that elapsed from when I Answered the
Question to when you Clarified, that new events and circumstances seem
to have unfolded which were not outlined in your Question, since they
hadn't yet occurred. Nevertheless, I will do my best to address these
new concerns to the best of my ability.

I must remind you, however, that Google Answers is most definately not
a legal service in and of itself. Although we can present you with
background information that may help you to decide whether you need to
seek professional legal advice, or what type of advice that should be,
it is not to be construed as legal advice in and of itself. From
Google Answers Terms of Service [ ]:

"Not Professional Advice. Information provided via the Services is not
intended to substitute for informed professional medical, psychiatric,
psychological, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other
professional advice. If you submit a question or comment on such a
topic, we will assume you are interested in soliciting and receiving
or giving general information rather than professional advice. You
should bear in mind that the applicability of such general information
might vary substantially in different states and according to the
individual factual circumstances surrounding a particular question or
comment. Accordingly, if you desire or require professional advice,
please consult a qualified provider who is licensed in your state or

Now, allow me to address your current situation. You *still* have not
been formally charged with anything, although a Sheriff suggested you
might submit to a lie detector test. Since this could possibly be
construed as the beginnings of a true investigation, and you seem to
be extremely concerned about it, I think it's time for you to contact
several criminal attorneys and get their opinions.

Most attorneys will have an initial consultation over the phone or in
person with you at no charge. During this meeting, you can relate to
the attorney (note that I said criminal attorney--you wish to seek
advice regarding the possible defense of yourself, not the offensive
case of suing your sister for libel or slander, which you should set
aside for now while you focus on your own best interests). You should
open your local yellow pages--for the town you reside in--and write
down the numbers of three different criminal attorneys. Then, with
notepad and pen handy, call each of them and relay your account of the
situation. You should perhaps have a written account of it in front of
you to be sure that you present the facts accurately and in the same
manner to each attorney you talk with.

This is really the only course of action you have at this point. If
you want to know if they have a legitimate case against you, then
present a criminal attorney with the facts as you know them and see
what they have to say. Ask them specifically, “Is there anything I can
or should be doing at this point to defend myself against a possible
charge?", because many times they will simply ask you, “What would you
like me to do for you?” Since you haven’t been charged with anything
yet, they may well ask you what you would like them to do for you at
this time.

They may tell you that until charges are actually filed, there’s
nothing they can do. Or, s/he may say that they’re good pals with the
D.A., and that they’ll be happy to bring up the subject with them over
lunch the next day to find out for you what’s going on. You’ve got to
call a criminal attorney in your home town. After such time as the
case is determined not to exist, or is dismissed, you can then focus
on pursuing a lawsuit against your sister for defamation of character.
You can ask for a referral for such an attorney from the same criminal
lawyer who assists you with your personal case.

Again, my condolences on the loss of your father.


Google Answers Researcher

P.S.: Since you seem interested in expertlaw-ga’s “choice of law”
Comments, below I have provided you with additional Google search
result links to further information related to that topic:


 “"choice of law" problems murder charges”:

““choice of law" problems”:

“"choice of law"”:

“"choice of law" North Carolina”:

“multijurisdictional "choice of law"”:
Subject: Re: Defamation of Character
From: omniscientbeing-ga on 11 Sep 2003 00:34 PDT

One thing I forgot to add in my Answer--

Even if an autopsy were conducted which showed that death occured due
to the spinal cord injury, or natural causes resulting from or related
to the injury--that doesn't mean that he couldn't have been pushed off
the bed by someone. In other words, the autopsy might prove what event
killed him, but it can't necessarily show how that event itself was

Subject: Re: Defamation of Character
From: expertlaw-ga on 12 Sep 2003 13:11 PDT
Dear sjh,

Your question poses some interesting jurisdictional and "choice of
law" problems, due to the fact that actions occurred in several states
and thus several states' laws could be involved in any litigation.
While the general tort of "defamation" remains very similar to its
common law antecedent, pretty much every jurisdiction has modified the
law by statute, and thus the elements of "defamation" and immunities
offered as a defense to that charge, will vary to some degree from
state to state.

Although the analysis in the following Google Answer is under
California law, I think the issues raised in Part IV build on some of
what omniscientbeing was getting at, with regard to why you might want
to consider if bringing a defamation suit is your best step:

If you do decide to proceed with litigation, one of the things you
will wish to consider is whether some of the conduct at issue might
have risen to the level of "defamation per se". In an ordinary
defamation case, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that he was defamed. In "defamation per se", the *defendant*
must prove that the remarks were not defamatory. Most jurisdictions
recognize an accusation that somebody committed a crime of "moral
turpitude" as "defamation per se" - and it seems that accusations of
murder should qualify.

There can also be a fine line between "opinion" and "accusation".
Depending upon the law that governs and the precise statements made, a
nebulous accusation such as "I think he may have murdered our father"
may qualify as opinion. Opinions are not ordinarily actionable as
defamation. At the same time, depending upon the facts and
circumstances, even a somewhat ambiguous statement may qualify as an
assertion of fact, or the jurisdiction (like California) may have
amended its statute so as to eliminate that distinction and instead
interpose a different test for when a statement is defamatory.

- Expertlaw
Subject: Re: Defamation of Character
From: expertlaw-ga on 16 Sep 2003 07:34 PDT
Dear sjh,

I should have added that I am sorry to hear about your loss, and the
unnecessary additional troubles you are going through. I didn't mean
to overlook the human side when commenting on the legal issues
involved with your situation.

- expertlaw

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