Internet product and services review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List have the potential to tip the commercial, and therefore economic, balance away from businesses and in favor of consumers. Consumers can now share with the public their good and bad experiences with local providers of goods and services. This is an especially powerful tool in a jurisdiction where consumer protection laws are weak and consumer protection law enforcement is a low priority.
Business owners, however, are striking back against these dissatisfied consumers with defamation claims based on internet web posts that portray their business in less than a positive light. Unfortunately, a consumer, who has posted a negative, but honest, review of a business, can find himself the target of a law suit in which he is forced to defend himself in court, spend tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and be forced to remove his post. Clearly, such an action can chill the commercial free speech that the internet fosters.
The purpose of this article is to provide the consumer with some guidance in writing consumer reviews as well as some basics in understanding the law of defamation.
A defamation action compensates damage to reputation or good name caused by the publication of false information. To be defamatory, a publication or statement must be false and must bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt or ridicule, or must impeach his honesty, integrity virtue or reputation. Defamation includes libel and slander. Libel is the publication of defamatory statements by written or printed words and slander is the publication of defamatory statements by spoken words. A plaintiff may have to prove how the alleged defamation caused him measurable damages. Defamation claims can be difficult to prove. A defamation claim must be brought one year from its publication.
Statements that are hyperbole or the opinion of the consumer cannot support a claim for defamation. In one case, the court found that calling someone a “bitch” was not defamatory because it was a statement of opinion and “the law provides no redress for harsh name calling.” Referring to a person as “incompetent”, an amateur or “an idiot” probably falls under the heading of opinion and hyperbole as well. Referring to someone a “crook” or a “thief” in a review, however, may be more troublesome.
To be defamatory, a statement must be false. Therefore a statement limited to the facts of a consumer’s actual experience with a business may be easier to defend in the future.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please feel free to contact Scott Currey at 480-461-5363 or log on to udallshumway.com or contact an attorney in your area.