Many people incorrectly believe that there is a 1 year across the board Statute of Limitation on slander, libel and defamation in Rhode Island.
However, R.I.G.L § 9-1-14 states that “(a) Actions for words spoken shall be commenced and sued within one year next after the words spoken (b) Actions for injuries to the person shall be commenced and sued within three (3) years next after the cause of action shall accrue, and not after.”
In Mikaelian v. Drug Abuse Unit, 501 A.2d 721 (R.I. 1985), the Rhode Island Supreme Court has strictly interepreted this statute:
In the case at bar the Legislature has specifically used the term “words spoken.” These are plain and unambiguous words that should not be sought to be construed in relation to the somewhat tortuous history of the distinction between libel and slander. The Legislature would be presumed to know that generally slander deals with the spoken word and libel deals with the written word, in spite of the possible overlap in certain areas. However, the Rhode Island Legislature, in using the term “words spoken,” should not be construed as having selected these words inadvertently or without specific intent. In the attempt to give these words their plain and ordinary meaning and to give effect to their use by the Legislature, we can only conclude that the Legislature meant what it said without equivocation. Consequently, “words spoken” do not include written material.
Thus, here are the current Statutes of Limitation in Rhode Island:
- Oral Defamation (aka slander): 1 year
- Written Defamation (aka libel): 3 years
In this author’s humble opinion, the General Assembly should revisit this issue and make a consistent Statute of Limitation for both oral and written defamation.