Suing negative reviewers

You know those user reviews on online sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Yahoo, and all those restaurant and travel sites?  Some businesses are striking back at negative reviews by suing the reviewers.

A Fairfax County woman being sued for defamation over negative reviews she wrote on Yelp and Angie’s List must delete certain accusations and is barred from repeating them in new posts, a judge ruled Wednesday.

The preliminary injunction was hailed as a victory by a D.C. contractor, who took the woman to court claiming that her online reviews of the work he did on her home were false and cost him $300,000 in business. He is suing her for $750,000.

“It’s a win on morality, integrity and truthfulness,” contractor Christopher Dietz said after the hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court. “This is permanent damage. I can’t undo what she did.”

Jane Perez hired Dietz to perform cosmetic improvements in June 2011 on her newly purchased townhouse, but she quickly soured on Dietz and gave him a scathing one-star review on Yelp and a similar treatment on Angie’s List.

The list of accusations over the job were long, but included damage to her home, an invoice for work Dietz did not perform and jewelry that went missing when Dietz was the only other person with a key to her home. Dietz denies those claims. . . .

In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation. Opinions are generally protected by the First Amendment. . . .

Lawyers say legal actions over reviews on Web sites such as Yelp are on the rise, as the sites have grown in popularity and online reputations have become more important for doctors, dentists and a host of other professionals.

Some reviewers and free speech advocates view such suits as attempts to stifle freedom of speech, while business owners say they are being forced to fight back because a false post online can cause serious damage to their businesses.

via Judge says homeowner must delete some accusations on Yelp, Angie’s List – The Washington Post.

Should consumer reviewers have the freedom to say whatever they want?  Or do businesses need some recourse against exaggerating individuals who can ruin their reputation?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Michael B.

    This is off-topic about suing, but check this series out. It’s a bunch of professional actors who read Yelp reviews. It’s especially funny given how seriously some of the reviewers take themselves:

  • Michael B.

    This is off-topic about suing, but check this series out. It’s a bunch of professional actors who read Yelp reviews. It’s especially funny given how seriously some of the reviewers take themselves:

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com Derek Johnson

    If this guy wanted to avoid such publicity, he should have done a good job to begin with. And if it was such a bad job, didn’t this guy get enough good reviews to offset the bad one? Every product on Amazon has some bad reviews.

  • http://derekjohnsonmuses.com Derek Johnson

    If this guy wanted to avoid such publicity, he should have done a good job to begin with. And if it was such a bad job, didn’t this guy get enough good reviews to offset the bad one? Every product on Amazon has some bad reviews.

  • Orianna Laun

    You know the old saying about a woman scorned? Exactly. I was the secretary for a parochial school at one time. One of the parents alerted us to a website for ” reviewing” schools. After reading exceedingly negative and highly exaggerated comments about our teachers, students, and facilities, I started to wonder if this was a review or a disgruntled rant.
    A forum like Angie’s List is based on the premise that people will be honest: “Use this person/worker/company, he/she/they are honest and excel,” or “Don’t use them, they are sub-par.”
    In reality, there are poor companies with poor customer service, and people should know. I’d tell a friend about a bad experience, but having a personal vendetta against a company or person to the point of actively seeking to destroy them is wrong. In that case, the business should have means of legal recourse.
    The end result of a published (online or hard copy) review should be that the business can see what they are doing well or on what they can improve.

  • Orianna Laun

    You know the old saying about a woman scorned? Exactly. I was the secretary for a parochial school at one time. One of the parents alerted us to a website for ” reviewing” schools. After reading exceedingly negative and highly exaggerated comments about our teachers, students, and facilities, I started to wonder if this was a review or a disgruntled rant.
    A forum like Angie’s List is based on the premise that people will be honest: “Use this person/worker/company, he/she/they are honest and excel,” or “Don’t use them, they are sub-par.”
    In reality, there are poor companies with poor customer service, and people should know. I’d tell a friend about a bad experience, but having a personal vendetta against a company or person to the point of actively seeking to destroy them is wrong. In that case, the business should have means of legal recourse.
    The end result of a published (online or hard copy) review should be that the business can see what they are doing well or on what they can improve.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Turkle, in her book Alone Together carefully documents what I think we all know intrinsically: we tend to say things electronically that we might not say in person. Online, we often seem to be missing that societal filter that tempers our anger. Just five minutes on facebook should tell you that (or so I’m told). I wonder how many Amazon reviews, blog comments, or wall postings would sound as vitriolic as they do if the authors of those posts had to say them directly to someone’s face.

    I’m not sure I can pinpoint it more than this: there’s something about face-to-face contact that discourages (but does not prevent!) us from being total jerks to each other, but this something is largely missing from electronic media.

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    Turkle, in her book Alone Together carefully documents what I think we all know intrinsically: we tend to say things electronically that we might not say in person. Online, we often seem to be missing that societal filter that tempers our anger. Just five minutes on facebook should tell you that (or so I’m told). I wonder how many Amazon reviews, blog comments, or wall postings would sound as vitriolic as they do if the authors of those posts had to say them directly to someone’s face.

    I’m not sure I can pinpoint it more than this: there’s something about face-to-face contact that discourages (but does not prevent!) us from being total jerks to each other, but this something is largely missing from electronic media.

  • Spaulding

    I typically view most consumer reviews, and the comments allowed in the newspaper or on many feeds on Facebook, and things like American Idol as, “pooled American idiocy.”

  • Spaulding

    I typically view most consumer reviews, and the comments allowed in the newspaper or on many feeds on Facebook, and things like American Idol as, “pooled American idiocy.”

  • Jon

    Should we get rid of the Eighth Commandment?

    Last time I checked, truth was still a defense against a defamation charge.

    Short of that, you should be very careful to couch your statements in terms of opinion.

    Or just try to follow the eighth commandment.

  • Jon

    Should we get rid of the Eighth Commandment?

    Last time I checked, truth was still a defense against a defamation charge.

    Short of that, you should be very careful to couch your statements in terms of opinion.

    Or just try to follow the eighth commandment.

  • rlewer

    There is still such a thing as libel, even on the internet.

    Angie’s List tries to check things out and get them right. This is not true for most comment lines which are not checked on. Anyone can write anything, positive or negative.

  • rlewer

    There is still such a thing as libel, even on the internet.

    Angie’s List tries to check things out and get them right. This is not true for most comment lines which are not checked on. Anyone can write anything, positive or negative.

  • WebMonk

    The key here is “In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation.”

    If the contractor can show that they are lies, then it’s a slam-dunk of a case that everyone should agree the lady can be sued.

    But, if it’s just a case of the contractor not liking the review even though it’s an accurate one, then hopefully he’ll lose quickly.

  • WebMonk

    The key here is “In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation.”

    If the contractor can show that they are lies, then it’s a slam-dunk of a case that everyone should agree the lady can be sued.

    But, if it’s just a case of the contractor not liking the review even though it’s an accurate one, then hopefully he’ll lose quickly.

  • Kirk

    @8 I wonder if this is designed to reach settlement, though. Even if you, as the accused defamer, are in the right and malicious intent can’t be proven, you’ll still be subject to legal fees. I worry that larger corporations might use this to bully people into not posting negative reviews.

  • Kirk

    @8 I wonder if this is designed to reach settlement, though. Even if you, as the accused defamer, are in the right and malicious intent can’t be proven, you’ll still be subject to legal fees. I worry that larger corporations might use this to bully people into not posting negative reviews.

  • WebMonk

    Kirk, this has always been the case with everything. There’s nothing special about negative reviews here.

    Yes, large parties can sue someone and rack up legal bills even if they know they will lose in the hopes of intimidating the smaller party.

    There is recourse for this – if the case is deemed to be spurious the innocent defendant can get his legal fees covered plus sometimes sanctions, penalties (often twice the cost of the action), and even contempt of court criminal charges.

    At the quickest of glances it may appear that frivolous lawsuits by large companies against individuals is an easily abused weapon, there are actually several things which significantly limit the use of such a tactic.

  • WebMonk

    Kirk, this has always been the case with everything. There’s nothing special about negative reviews here.

    Yes, large parties can sue someone and rack up legal bills even if they know they will lose in the hopes of intimidating the smaller party.

    There is recourse for this – if the case is deemed to be spurious the innocent defendant can get his legal fees covered plus sometimes sanctions, penalties (often twice the cost of the action), and even contempt of court criminal charges.

    At the quickest of glances it may appear that frivolous lawsuits by large companies against individuals is an easily abused weapon, there are actually several things which significantly limit the use of such a tactic.

  • DonS

    Should consumer reviewers have the freedom to say whatever they want? Or do businesses need some recourse against exaggerating individuals who can ruin their reputation?

    As background, our right to free speech under the 1st Amendment is a right with respect to the government, not other private parties. Private parties, like newspapers, magazines, Facebook, or Yelp, can censor you all they want. Of course, if a private party wants to use government courts to censor you, those courts are constrained by the Constitution, unless an enforceable contract between the two parties provides for some other standard.

    That said, free speech rights only apply to opinion. They do not give you an unfettered right to harm other private parties by uttering falsehoods. This includes implication and innuendo. So this woman can state the truth all she wants. She can also opine that Mr. Dietz is a shoddy contractor. But she cannot state falsehoods that materially harm his business reputation. This would include assertions that he stole from her, damaged her home, or issued false invoices, to the extent that she cannot prove those assertions to be true.

    To answer the question, I believe the law properly divides the line between what one can say and what one cannot say. Businesses, and private individuals, do need recourse against slanderers, defamers, and libelists.

  • DonS

    Should consumer reviewers have the freedom to say whatever they want? Or do businesses need some recourse against exaggerating individuals who can ruin their reputation?

    As background, our right to free speech under the 1st Amendment is a right with respect to the government, not other private parties. Private parties, like newspapers, magazines, Facebook, or Yelp, can censor you all they want. Of course, if a private party wants to use government courts to censor you, those courts are constrained by the Constitution, unless an enforceable contract between the two parties provides for some other standard.

    That said, free speech rights only apply to opinion. They do not give you an unfettered right to harm other private parties by uttering falsehoods. This includes implication and innuendo. So this woman can state the truth all she wants. She can also opine that Mr. Dietz is a shoddy contractor. But she cannot state falsehoods that materially harm his business reputation. This would include assertions that he stole from her, damaged her home, or issued false invoices, to the extent that she cannot prove those assertions to be true.

    To answer the question, I believe the law properly divides the line between what one can say and what one cannot say. Businesses, and private individuals, do need recourse against slanderers, defamers, and libelists.

  • SKPeterson

    I would think the issue hinges on “false factual statements” not even on a sharply worded difference of opinion or scathing review. If the reviewer can substantiate their claims, such as resorting to the use of readily available before-and-after photos, then the contractor would have little legal recourse. He could merely offer up his own opinion on the quality of the work against the opinion of the reviewer, but the evidence would be the photos and then allowing others the opportunity to determine if the work was acceptable or not or if the price was reasonable.

  • SKPeterson

    I would think the issue hinges on “false factual statements” not even on a sharply worded difference of opinion or scathing review. If the reviewer can substantiate their claims, such as resorting to the use of readily available before-and-after photos, then the contractor would have little legal recourse. He could merely offer up his own opinion on the quality of the work against the opinion of the reviewer, but the evidence would be the photos and then allowing others the opportunity to determine if the work was acceptable or not or if the price was reasonable.

  • dust

    Snarky commentators on Cranach beware :)

    cheers!

  • dust

    Snarky commentators on Cranach beware :)

    cheers!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I just learned that one of the lawyers for the contractor is a former student of ours!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I just learned that one of the lawyers for the contractor is a former student of ours!

  • dust

    Better get his name, you may be in need of his services some day :)

    cheers!

    ps. the plaintiffs would be wise to retain DonS!

  • dust

    Better get his name, you may be in need of his services some day :)

    cheers!

    ps. the plaintiffs would be wise to retain DonS!

  • Joe

    There is absolutely nothing new about this. A person has always had a right to redress in the courts if another party defames your workmanship, skill or honesty. The medium of communication has changed – nothing in the law has.

    These types of suits are actually a very important part of the free market at work. The market depends on individuals making decisions. Those decisions need to be made based on information. Thus, a market will function best when the information is truthful and accurate.

  • Joe

    There is absolutely nothing new about this. A person has always had a right to redress in the courts if another party defames your workmanship, skill or honesty. The medium of communication has changed – nothing in the law has.

    These types of suits are actually a very important part of the free market at work. The market depends on individuals making decisions. Those decisions need to be made based on information. Thus, a market will function best when the information is truthful and accurate.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@16), though you are honest as the day is long, as well as a skillful lawyer and an insightful commenter, yet you are as unpleasant as a foetid aardvark. And no one likes you. Two stars out of five.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Joe (@16), though you are honest as the day is long, as well as a skillful lawyer and an insightful commenter, yet you are as unpleasant as a foetid aardvark. And no one likes you. Two stars out of five.

  • Joe

    I really wish we had a like button!

  • Joe

    I really wish we had a like button!

  • Lou G.

    Don #11:
    “Businesses, and private individuals, do need recourse against slanderers, defamers, and libelists”
    Exactly! I’m glad that we still have this ability to challenge defamation charges in the courts, even libelist remarks made on websites. It seems that these types of false accusations have been growing more and more prevalent on a whole host of websites, and I think some people feel they have no recourse. It’s actually good to know that businesses and individuals can protect themselves against that type of harm. I’d like to see the website owners be held more accountable for obvious infractions. Perhaps down the road.

  • Lou G.

    Don #11:
    “Businesses, and private individuals, do need recourse against slanderers, defamers, and libelists”
    Exactly! I’m glad that we still have this ability to challenge defamation charges in the courts, even libelist remarks made on websites. It seems that these types of false accusations have been growing more and more prevalent on a whole host of websites, and I think some people feel they have no recourse. It’s actually good to know that businesses and individuals can protect themselves against that type of harm. I’d like to see the website owners be held more accountable for obvious infractions. Perhaps down the road.


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