As a U.S. business owner, what legal action can you take if you get a bad online review from a customer?
When you’re building a business, you want to do everything you can to provide stellar products and/or services to your customers. When you operate at a high standard, you’ll gain a reputation as a business that people can trust and rely on—and that reputation will continually drive new customers your way.
Online reviews play a huge role in building that reputation. When potential customers research your business and read glowing, five-star reviews, they’re going to want to reach out and do business with you. But if they read a bad review (even if it’s biased, unfair or completely untrue), it’s going to do the opposite—and send those customers straight to your competitors.
As a business owner, you want to do everything you can to effectively deal with negative reviews so they don’t ruin your business’ reputation and keep customers from working with you.
But what do you do when you get an unfair or untrue comment? How do you handle the situation? And can you (or should you) take it as far as suing for defamation?
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Who Can You Sue Over a Bad Review?
To be honest, the answer is: It depends.
For the most part, reviews are covered under the First Amendment, which protects free speech. Additionally, 34 U.S. states have passed Anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws. Anti-SLAPP is intended to prevent people or businesses from silencing or censoring their critics by intimidating them with the threat of a lawsuit.
Thanks to these protections, if a customer is unhappy with your products or services, or the experiences they’ve had with your business, they have the right to say so—whether that be in person, over the phone, or online.
There are, however, exceptions. If a customer posts a review that is factually inaccurate or contains accusations about your business that are untrue, you may have grounds to sue the online reviewer for defamation.
The best way to distinguish between the two? Any review that contains a customer’s opinions or factual information about your business would be covered under free speech. Some examples of content that would be covered under the First Amendment include:
- “That business charges an arm and a leg!”
- “I wasn’t happy with the level of service I received.”
- “The customer service representative was rude.”
On the other hand, any review that contains blatant factual inaccuracies that harm your business could be grounds for a defamation lawsuit. Some examples of content that might allow you to sue (assuming the content is untrue) include:
- “This company does not have a license to provide their services.”
- “One of the workers stole an expensive watch while painting my home.”
- “This company charged me for services that they never delivered—and have refused to return my money.”
Before you even consider suing, make sure you distinguish whether the comment would even qualify as defamation—or if it would be protected under the First Amendment.
Can You Sue Review Sites Directly?
There are certain scenarios where you would be able to sue a reviewer over a bad review (namely if it contained factual inaccuracies that harmed your business).
But what about the site where the review is hosted? Can you go above the customer and sue the review site directly?
As it turns out, you can’t.
Under the U.S. Communications Decency Act, websites cannot be held liable for publishing any content written by a third party—and that includes review sites like Yelp, Google Reviews, Healthgrades, and Angie’s List.
So if the review site doesn’t change or alter the content or meaning of the original comment? They’re protected from any potential libel or defamation suits, which means you can’t sue them.
What Can You Do?
If you happen to come across a negative comment about your business, what should you do? Is filing a defamation lawsuit a viable option?
The truth is, it takes a significant amount of time, money and energy to hire a lawyer and bring a suit to court in order to get a bad review removed from a review site. But, if the comment is extremely harmful to your business (and you can prove it to be false), it may be worth that time, money and energy. If not, there are other, more practical ways to deal with a bad review.
Some strategies you can use to effectively deal with a negative review online include:
- Request the website to remove the online review. If someone has posted a comment that’s both negative and factually inaccurate, you can request that the website remove it by making your case that the information in the review is false. Just keep in mind that they’re under no obligation to remove the review.
- Post a thoughtful, gracious response. Arguably the best way to deal with a negative review? Posting a thoughtful, gracious response. Address any issues brought up in the review, share how your company is working to ensure it doesn’t happen again and offer a solution to the customer. For example, if they had a negative customer service, you might apologize and offer them a discount code for a future purchase.
- Generate more positive online reviews. One of the best ways to combat negative reviews? With plenty of good reviews. Strive to offer the best products and/or services to your customers, make sure they’re satisfied and then ask them to post a review.
If you ultimately decide to move forward with a lawsuit, it’s important to consult a lawyer immediately. And especially before you invest too much time, money or energy into the process. They can give you deeper insights on your legal options, the viability of your case and whether you might be able to successfully sue for damages.
What Not to Do
There are also a few things you definitely DON’T want to do when you find a negative review for your business, including:
- React immediately: Reading negative comments sting. So when you read one, your knee-jerk reaction may be to respond in the moment (e.g., by posting a comment defending yourself). But if you respond immediately, you may react poorly (e.g., lashing out because you feel angry or insulted). Instead, give yourself time to cool off before you write a measured response.
- Ignore the content: While it can be hard to read negative or critical things about yourself or your business, if there’s truth to the negative review, it can be a growth opportunity. Don’t immediately ignore the content of a review simply because it’s negative. Instead, sit with it. See if there’s any truth to what the review says and develop a plan to address the issue moving forward.
- Retaliate: If a comment is either insulting or spreading lies about your business, you may want to retaliate against the reviewer. But it’s incredibly important not to retaliate online because that retaliation can come back to haunt you—especially if you plan to file a defamation suit.
Here’s a real-life example:
A contractor filed a $700,000 lawsuit against a homeowner who claimed on Yelp and Angie’s List that he damaged her townhouse, billed her for work he never completed and stole her jewelry. Originally, the court awarded the contractor a victory and ordered the homeowner to take down the comment about theft.
But before going to trial, the contractor posted his own negative comments in response, claiming that since the homeowner never paid, she actually stole from him.
Ultimately, the jury determined that while the homeowner defamed the contractor, the contractor’s later negative remarks also defamed her—so no damages were awarded. Essentially, the contractor’s online retaliation may have cost him a $700,000 settlement.
Deal With Bad Reviews Effectively
No one likes to see bad reviews for their business—especially if they’re malicious, harmful or untrue. But now that you know the most effective ways to deal with them, you’ll know how to navigate the situation next time you come across a negative comment—whether that’s by managing it on your own or consulting a lawyer to move forward with a defamation suit.
This post was updated in August, 2020.