Can You Be Sued For a Bad Online Review?

Review sites like Yelp, Google Places, and Angie’s List have become a popular platform for consumers to post reviews about local businesses.  Fast, efficient, and seemingly anonymous, an online review can be a great tool to get the word out about a product or service. But as more and more people base purchasing decisions on what they they read on the web, the incentive for businesses to clamp down on negative reviews is growing.  This has resulted in a disturbing trend of litigation against consumers and—even more scary—results that are certain to encourage more of the same in the future.

Take the recent example of Perez v. Dietz, a Virginia lawsuit which arose from allegedly defamatory comments Perez posted on Yelp after she retained the services of Dietz to perform work on her home.  The review, which claimed Dietz botched her home renovation and stole jewelry during the construction process, prompted Dietz to seek $750,000 in damages to his company’s reputation.

After months of litigation and (inevitably) thousands of dollars spent by each side on attorney fees, the case went to trial in January.   Ultimately, the jury determined that Perez’s review was defamatory but that Dietz’s publicly posted response to Perez’s review was also defamatory.  With both parties having engaged in wrongful conduct, the jury decided neither deserved to recoup damages and awarded nothing.  Apparently in Virginia two wrongs do make a right.

Even though neither side recovered damages, Perez v. Dietz teaches an important lesson: avoiding litigation is more important than prevailing in litigation.  Both Perez and Dietz spent months embroiled in a time consuming and no doubt stressful lawsuit.  Now, all they have to show for it are receipts for their attorney fees.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we should should stop posting reviews online.  Reviews are a powerful tool for weeding out bad businesses and making sure the good ones are rewarded with success.  So, here are some quick tips to make sure that you don’t become the next Perez if you feel the need to post a bad review.

-  Stick to opinions.  Claims for defamation can only arise from false statements of fact.  Opinions are inherently subjective and, as such, not provably “true” or “false.”  Therefore, provided your review contains only opinions (e.g. “The food at Restaurant was horrible”), there will be no basis for a lawsuit.

- If you must state facts, make sure you can prove them.  Truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation, but that only does you good if you have evidence to back up what you say. Reviews that contain obvious exaggerations or embellishments tend to be taken less seriously by other consumers anyway.

- Don’t post personally identifying information in your review.  It’s not always possible to prevent the business you are reviewing from figuring out who you are, but don’t make it any easier for them.  Technically, it would still be possible for the business to sue you anonymously as a “Doe” and then determine who you are by subpoenaing records from your internet service provider, but that is a complicated process and off-putting to most would-be litigants.

The bottom line is to use common sense and to remember that the internet does not insulate us from the consequences of our actions, even when those consequences are undeserved.