Online Reviewers Beware: You Can Get Sued

Everyone's a critic these days, but defamation laws still exist in the Internet age

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Scott Eells / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Yelp Inc. logo is displayed in the window of a restaurant in New York, U.S. on March 1, 2012.

Jane Perez, a retired captain in the military from Fairfax County, VA, was not happy with her home contractor, so she wrote reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List explaining why. She said he had done a poor job on her renovations and billed her for work he did not perform — and that he may have stolen her jewelry. She warned readers: “Bottom line: do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

The contractor, Christopher Dietz, filed a $750,000 defamation suit and got a judge to order Perez to rewrite the reviews. The Virginia Supreme Court recently reversed that decision, saying that reviews should not be censored — and that if they were defamatory, Dietz should focus on getting money damages.

The ruling is being hailed as an important victory for freedom of speech on the Internet, which it is. But it is also a reminder of the risks that come with being an online critic. Sites like Yelp! and Amazon give ordinary people the power to write reviews that have a major impact on other people’s reputations and livelihoods. But it also means that they can be held legally responsible if what they write is defamatory.

(MORE: Is Yelp Really for Morons?)

Before the Internet, critique of any kind was mainly the perview of journalists. Editors, and sometimes lawyers, reviewed them for fairness and accuracy. Non-journalists who wanted to complain about businesses or other people could express their views by word of mouth, but it was difficult for them to reach a mass audience or to do much damage. Now, of course, everyone is a critic—entire businesses have been built upon the crowdsourced opinion of the masses. There is money to be made—and lost, as bad reviews can have a major impact on a company’s bottom line.

Dietz claims that Perez’s reviews cost him a substantial amount of lost business, along with “insult, mental suffering, being placed in fear” and “anxiety,” and harm to his reputation. In his suit, he charged that Perez’s reviews were false. He insists he did the work satisfactorily and charged her only for work he did. He denies that he or his workers took any jewelry. In fact, Dietz says Perez wanted him to do additional work for free — and then refused to pay him.

(MORE: The Yelp Conspiracy: How a Group of Businesses Conspired to Get Better Yelp Ratings)

Dietz scored a big victory in the lower court when he persuaded a judge to order Perez to rewrite her reviews, but civil liberties groups were outraged. The ACLU argued that the order violated Perez’s first amendment rights by telling her that she could not make certain statements even before a court had determined that they were false or defamatory. In late December, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed. If Perez’s reviews prove to be defamatory—if they are false and they injured Dietz’s reputation— Dietz can collect monetary damages. But he has no right to get the reviews taken down while the courts try to figure out who is right.

Under federal law — 47 U.S.C. § 230, to be specific — websites like Yelp and Angie’s List are shielded from being sued for defamation, but the writers — people like Perez — are legally responsible for what they write and lawsuits can be filed against them. That may not be what a lot of people are thinking when they go on Angie’s List or Amazon to air grievances. In fact, Perez told the Washington Post that when she posted her reviews it never occurred to her that she might end up in court or on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees — not to mention the monetary damages. Dietz is suing for $750,000, and awards can go far higher than that. In 2006, a jury awarded a Florida woman $11.3 million in damages against a woman who made defamatory comments on an Internet message board.

The Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling is an important defense of people’s right to go online and express their views. But it is also a reminder that anyone who crosses the line may have to pay up — big time.

MORE: 9 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online Reviews

13 comments
SherryPendleton
SherryPendleton

My daughter passed away in July of 2011.  She left a child behind who I was to raise, the child was 11 when "Mom" died.  We spent near 2 weeks at Hospice prior to my daughters death, all plans were made, however, nothing was in writing.  I trusted the sperm donor (which is all he is) of my daughter, my stupidity!  This guys name is not listed as "Father" on my daughters Birth Certificate, he refused to give her his last name, when she was approx. 30 yrs. of age.  Claiming her mother (me) would try to collect child support!  His excuse was as poor as his excuse for denying my daughter was ever his!  FYI: I do have original letter to the State, denying her.  This man hired legal aide, had the VA fill out all forms, and had a court date before I could gather all correct information to fill out my legal aide forms.  He had NO information RE: my daughter, my grand child, the father of my grand child (except his name) the forms given to the legal aide lawyer had to have had mostly blank places or false information.  He went to court, was granted guardianship, my grand child's calls, texts, and visits became further apart, and as of Christmas 2013, has informed me via text, "I do not want you in my life."  I no longer know where the two are, they have moved.  Prior to them moving, I researched any and all types of abuse - out of desperation to keep lines of communication open with my only grand child.  I feel this man has slandered me to the child (this is a form of child abuse) I've tried every option, school, Dept. of Family Services, Dept. of birth/death records, the funeral home, the cemetery, everything!  I ran into nothing except brick walls, I am crushed.  My daughter was buried with his last name, is this not false?  She was denied his name, by him!!!  I had to accept looking at the name on her stone at the cemetery, I had no choice.  This is all due to not being able to get any results, with all my efforts.  I am broken, beat, tired, hurt, and much more.  I have no more fight in me.  I did inform the school this child attended that my grand child is exposed to pot constantly, I informed DFS of the same, I informed police he tucks a towel under the ONLY door to exit the apartment, this is to keep the smell of pot from escaping to the hallways.  I got NOTHING, got NOWHERE, except a bit more bitter with him, authority, police, the whole damn system!  It so happened my laptop was very close to crashing recently, I thought possibly due to having far too many pictures on it. As a result, I began loading pictures onto disks.  Well, low and behold, I found a short bit of footage my grand child filmed with a cell phone - the footage has good ole Pot Head gramps rolling a joint, all paraphernalia lying about, his bag of dope, shall I go on?  My grand child began the footage with the phone pointed to face, singing into phone, then the phone (while filming) goes over to gramps while he does what he does 24/7.  Does anyone reading this have any idea what they would do with this, had they been wearing my shoes the past few agonizing years?!  I happened across this "TIME" .com while looking for something completely different!  But I figured what the heck - why not post my drama and see if it angers anyone else out there!  THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR READING MY POST, if you are reading this - I figure you've read the post...

Jenniar
Jenniar

truth is the best barrier against a maligning case. A distinction of slant doesn't usually uphold a slander case. Weigh your choices and report mindfully.  Should check it http://aceprohvac.com

MontanaGal
MontanaGal

Your first amendment right to free speech is protected by law. But that doesn't mean you can use it irresponsibly. When you state something as opinion rather than a fact, you are generally okay. Saying "John is the worst contractor I've ever used" is stating an opinion. Don't make false statements. Don't use overly colorful language. If you have photos and witnesses to support your statements- use them to your benefit.

There are unscrupulous businesses and their attorneys out there who would love nothing more than to bully you into silence- just remember, the truth will set you free. Truth is the best defense against a defamation case. A difference of opinion doesn't generally support a defamation case. Weigh your options and report responsibly. If you've been harmed by a building contractor, in many states, filing a report to their licensing/governing authority is protected from defamation lawsuits. Just something to think about.

JoeHink
JoeHink

We have a similar situation. A woman is saying we are not licensed and have no certification for child birth education and home birth delivery. She also claims we don't have a website or we took it down after our fraud was revealed. All lies, what to do about it? Anyone know a lawyer who is cheap enough. He can keep the entire award if he likes.

MarkoBrennan
MarkoBrennan

Typical journalist angle. Of course you would discourage the democratization of opinion. Of course you regret Joe Sixpack actually having a voice. Not long till we all turn off our TVs and radios, permanently. And all our interaction will your content will be two way. You better run run run...

dese1ect
dese1ect

Defamation is the assertion of fact not opinion. Seeing as in her review she stated that the police did not press charges, but she believed that someone who worked for Dietz had stolen the items, I would clearly interpret that as opinion not fact. She did file a police report and all. Dietz is clearly acting as the Censor demanding a sum so large as to quiet anyone who would try to write such a review about him again. This isn't a typical case because of his actions, not to mention his lack of communication through legal channels in advance of filing suit. I support Jane Perez because she first had shoddy work done, had property go missing, fired the contractor, beat him in small claims court, and now is being retaliated against with a defamation suit. You should to: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/309293

jason024
jason024

Simple solution...don't accuse someone of a crime (burglary) if you can't back it up. If they did a poor job and ovarcharged you, then put it on the review they can't do squat about that. 

medwards
medwards

"Before the Internet, critique of any kind was mainly the perview of journalists."

Yes, and (good) journalists knew (roughly) the line between critique and defamation. Unfortunately, much of the general public believes there's some magical First Amendment "right" that lets them opine and conjecture to their heart's content with impunity.

The review you quoted went way, WAY out of bounds. Calling someone a thief without proof can get you sued, whether you write it on the Internet, in a newspaper or a handwritten note on a laundromat bulletin board. Even without the other opinion (or revenge) driven comments, it was ill-advised at best. 

This should indeed be a warning for reviewers: give the facts and don't insinuate anything you can't back up. As I often like to say, it should be common sense...but sense doesn't seem to be as common as it should be.

Dakan45
Dakan45

@SherryPendleton So...you're kind of crazy, huh? Why would you possibly think this was the place for you to rant bout this? 

TedKool
TedKool

@JoeHink  As the business owner, you can respond to her comment on Yelp and it will show up along with her posted review. In that response, you can list your website and give any other pertinent information you want. You can tell your side of the story.