Have you had a negative experience recently with a contractor, coffee shop or other business recently in your neighborhood? Before you decide to post a negative review about them on Yelp (or any other review website, for that matter) keep in mind that it may end up with you sitting in court.
That’s exactly what happened to homeowner Jane Perez when she wrote a pair of scorching reviews of her local contractor. Perez accused him of not only making a mess of her home renovation but also stealing some of her jewelry during the process, claims that so incensed contractor Christopher Dietz that he sued her for defamation and damages to the tune of $750,000.
Luckily for Ms Perez, since Dietz was found to also have defamed her with his negative responses and accusations, both parties were found guilty and neither was able to recoup any money from the other. It seems that, in the world of online reviewing, two wrongs might actually make a right.
The question however is this; what does the fact that this actually went to court mean for the almost 120 million people who use Yelp and post reviews to it each month? While Perez wasn’t forced to pay any damages, the next person who ends up in court for defamation might not catch the same break.
Actually, Perez had a pro bono lawyer and so did spend much at all of her own money, but just the fact that she had to actually find a lawyer to defend herself is a concern, according to Paul Allen Levy of the First Amendment advocacy group Public Citizen. The fact is, while it wasn’t long ago that online reviews could be largely dismissed, in the last few years many businesses have become acutely aware of the impact that they can have on their bottom line. Indeed, a survey performed by Woodbury University recently showed that, of 261 businesses surveyed, almost 75% monitored customer satisfaction by way of reviews left on review sites like Yelp.
While the contractor in this case wasn’t able to recoup any money in damages, and Arizona a patient who wrote negative online reviews and actually put together an entire website that accused her plastic surgeons of botching her surgery was sued for $12 million. (The plastic surgeons won.) In Texas it was reported that a woman who wrote a negative review about a retailer had her debts reported to a credit bureau.
Those examples aside, Yelp actually supports the rights of their reviewers to share their opinions, good, bad and ugly, and actually provides guidance to help people write their reviews with less risk of getting into legal trouble.
Yelp’s senior litigation director, Aaron Schur, says that “litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. Businesses that trying to sue their customers into silence rarely prevail, waste their own time and money and usually bring additional, unwanted attention to the original criticism.” Indeed, many states actually have laws in place to protect consumers from being intimidated by lawsuits from businesses that they have criticized.
If you are keen on posting a negative review about a business that did you wrong, keep in mind that defending yourself from a libel lawsuit can cost you upwards of $10,000 or more in legal expenses. It might be a good idea to check your homeowner’s insurance policy beforehand to make sure that you have personal liability coverage or, if you really feel the need to publish that negative review, purchase an extra umbrella policy for libel coverage. This is actually a similar policy that many online bloggers purchase in order to protect themselves from lawsuits.
Lastly of course, never publish an online review that isn’t completely factual and, if possible, back up your claims with physical facts like pictures, receipts, written notes and anything else that might show what the offending business has done.