Should you sue someone for defamation that unjustly left a poor review of your business online? I’m sure it’s a question that crossed the mind of many frustrated business owners.
From Yelp to Google Places, Healthgrades to Angie’s List, people are sharing their experiences on anything and everything. And others are taking these experiences seriously. It’s the 2016 version of word-of-mouth advertising – for better or worse.
Most local businesses have received an online review. It may be good or bad, fair or unfair. But it’s there for the world to see.
In today’s world, reputations are strengthened or destroyed based on what others publish online. A classic example was when a Yelp reviewer said a Chicago plastic surgeon gave her “Frankenstein breasts.”
As a business owner, it’s a whole new world to navigate. And one of the common questions is, “What should I do when I get an unfair review?”
Who Can You Sue Over an Unfair Review?
Most reviews are protected under the First Amendment (free speech). However, a court can find a reviewer guilty of defaming a business if they post factually incorrect accusations. Freedom of speech typically boils down to whether someone is expressing their opinion or asserting a fact.
For example, if a customer says that you are a jerk or you “charge an arm and a leg,” you cannot sue for it (or, you will not win if you do sue).
But, if a customer claims that you are unlicensed or that you stole her watch while painting her house, you could have a case. A false statement of fact that hurts your business is not protected by the right to free speech.
And for all you avid reviewers out there, take note of this distinction. It’s important to choose your words carefully before bashing a business on a review site. Stick to opinions and truths.
Can You Sue Yelp Itself?
If you have ever thought about suing Yelp or another review site directly, you can forget it.
The U.S. Communications Decency Act prevents any lawsuits against websites for publishing third party content. That includes reviews, comments, voting, forums, etc.
As long as Yelp or another site doesn’t alter the meaning of someone’s original post, they’re immune from any libel or defamation suit.
Don’t Retaliate Online
If you find yourself the recipient of an unfair review, you don’t want to take matters into your own hands. Refrain from posting your own negative remark in return. Here’s an example why…
A contractor filed a $700,000 lawsuit against a homeowner who criticized his work on Yelp and Angie’s List.
The homeowner accused the contractor of damaging her townhome, billing for work that was never done, and even suggesting he stole her jewelry. The court awarded the contractor a victory and ordered the homeowner to take down the comment about theft.
But here’s where things get interesting.
The contractor was suing for $700,000 due to lost business. However, before he took the suit to court, he posted his own negative remarks. He claimed that since the homeowner never paid, she actually stole from him. The jury determined that the homeowner defamed the contractor, but that the contractor’s later negative remarks also defamed her. No damages were awarded.
In this case, the contractor’s own online comments may have cost him a $700k judgment.
What Can You Really Do?
The reality is that most small business owners don’t have the time, money, or patience to hire a lawyer and bring a suit to court in order to remove a bad review. If the review is very harmful to your business – and you can prove it to be false – then it may be a feasible endeavor.
Instead of going to court, there are other options for dealing with a negative review. You can request that the website review the post. (Although, keep in mind, they are under no obligation to remove a post you don’t like).
Perhaps the best way to combat it directly is through a gracious response. Just as with any customer service, offer a speedy solution and remember that the customer is always right.
Most importantly, try to increase the number of good opinions to dilute the effect of one bad review. Even the best companies occasionally get bad reviews. Just continue to provide the best possible service or product, make your customers happy, and don’t be shy in asking for someone’s review.
About the Author: Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur, small business expert, professional speaker, author and mother of four. She is the Founder and CEO of CorpNet.com, an online legal document filing service and recognized Inc.5000 company. At CorpNet, Nellie assists entrepreneurs across all 50 states to start a business, incorporate, form an LLC, and apply for trademarks. She also offers free business compliance tools for any entrepreneur to utilize. Connect with Nellie on LinkedIn.