People love to stand behind the concept of Free Speech but even that doesn’t give you the right to slander another person, spout lies or yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Unfortunately, the line that divides protected opinion from legal liability is blurry and hard to see.
The Washington Post just posted a story about a woman in Virginia who is being sued by her contractor because she gave him a bad review on Yelp. Actually, bad isn’t a strong enough word. She said he damaged her home, charged her for work he didn’t do and then stole jewelry from her home. If she’d stopped after the first two remarks, she might have been alright, but now she’s fighting a $750,000 defamation of character law suit.
Law suits like these aren’t common but more of them are popping up as websites like Yelp and Angie’s List take hold. Statistics show that people do rely on user reviews to help them make decisions and that’s bad news for companies saddled with bad reviews.
I’ve always felt that water will find its level. If a company is really horrendous, it will show up as a pattern over multiple reviews. If there’s one, single star review and 20 other people are happy, then I figure one person had a bad day but it happens. Then again, knowing how companies often pay for reviews, it could be that the “happy” people are just shills put there to drown out the noise of the complainer.
If we assume that everyone is telling the truth about their personal experience (and that’s a big if), then we need to look at opinion versus accusation. If I say the contractor did a poor job, that’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it. If I say he’s a thief, that’s an accusation and if I don’t have the proof to back it up, I probably shouldn’t say it in public. News reports say that juries generally side in favor of free speech but that’s still a lot of time and money wasted. The Post article mentions one company that was forced to pay the defendant’s legal fees after his defamation suit was thrown out of court.
On the business side, doesn’t a company have a right to protect its reputation? Suing might help recover some of the profit lost as a result of the bad review but it can’t undo the damage.
If these kinds of cases become more popular, it’s going to make everyone think twice about leaving an honest review online. Even if you allow anonymous commenting, that won’t protect the reviewer in a case like this. I’m sure this contractor knew the woman was unhappy before she posted her thoughts online. And jewelry theft is pretty specific so there was no hiding her identity.
And speaking of knowing. . .it’s been reported that the two parties in this case were friends from high school. I can see some savvy lawyer now, asking the woman if she posted the bad review to get back at the man because he didn’t ask her out to prom!
See, the trouble with all of this is that reviews are based on opinions and opinions often come from passion (the love kind and the hate kind). We often speak before we think and regret it later. Maybe sites like Yelp need to have a cooling off period before posting. Or mediators who attempt to settle disputes before they end up as court cases.
Usually, I’d expect a case like this to be thrown out of court, but this time, I’m worried that the reviewer might actually lose because she crossed that line between opinion and slander. If the court does decide against her, it’s likely to have some impact on Yelp but how many lawsuits will it take before they give up on the concept completely?
What do you think? Should companies be allowed to sue over a bad online review or not?