Should businesses sue over online reviews?

Highlights

  • A business can sue if an online review is untruthful, libelous, slanderous, defames character, intentionally interferes with business expectancy, violates privacy rights or breaches a contract.
  • A lawsuit is not usually the preferred course of action when dealing with negative reviews.
  • In most cases, online reviewers are protected as long as their statements are truthful. In fact, in the United States, most states have laws that make it illegal for businesses to interfere with or manipulate online reviews. Canada also has similar laws.

Everyone has an opinion and that is no more true than online reviews. No one is spared from the judgment of strangers anymore. If you're a business owner, you might cringe at that idea – and then wonder how to change it. But before you reach out to your lawyer, take a breath. In most cases, suing the reviewer is usually not the best course of action. 

Sections

Consumers reviewing every detail of their lives on sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google, and even Facebook is a regular part of everyday life. Review culture is so ingrained in most of us that leaving an online review is the assumed next step after finishing a meal, checking out of a hotel or leaving a doctor’s office.

It is also something that businesses must contend with and learn how to do so professionally and correctly. While a complaint that the receptionist was a bit rude may seem like an innocent act of free speech to the reviewer, the stakes are high for business owners:

  • 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
  • 60% of consumers say that negative reviews made them not want to use a business.
  • Every additional one-star Yelp rating can cause an increase in the business’s revenue by as much as 9%.

Reviews can be devastating for a company's reputation and their bottom line. And it isn't just the aggregate ratings on websites like Yelp that matter – a simple Google search can easily highlight past grievances. The importance of positive online reviews has led some businesses to do whatever it takes to protect their 5-star ratings, even threatening and pursing legal action.

Can a person really be sued for leaving bad reviews? What types of things can land reviewers in legal hot water? And what should a business owner do when faced with the choice of taking a reviewer to court?

Can you sue someone for an online review?

In a word, yes. As a business owner or individual, you can sue somebody for just about anything... that you can prove. That said, simply because you're in the right doesn't mean that you'll be successful in your case. Not to mention the other ramifications in the court of public opinion.

Here are a few reasons a business can cite for a lawsuit:

  • Defamation of character
  • Libel
  • Slander
  • Intentional interference with business expectancy 
  • Violation of privacy rights
  • Breach of contract

The number one reason for lawsuits over online reviews is that the review is simply untrue. While they have every right to their opinion, online reviewers should carefully choose their language when writing reviews to avoid what may be considered falsehoods.

When writing a review online, they should consider the following:

  • What did you really experience?
  • What is your point of view?
  • Are you being fair to the company or individual?
  • What suggestions can you make to improve the experience?
  • Who is really responsible for this experience?
  • Are there any important details that you've left out?
  • Can you back up all of your opinions and claims with proof?
  • Is there a way you can phrase your review as constructive criticism?

     

"When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred."

- Thomas Jefferson

While writing an online review, remember that words and phrasing can easily be misunderstood, misinterpreted or taken out of context, especially when emotions get involved. Keep in mind that as long as a review is based on facts and a personal point of view, it can be less vulnerable to a lawsuit or other legal action.

Are there protections for online reviewers?

In most cases, online reviewers are protected as long as their statements are truthful

Most states have laws that make it illegal for businesses to interfere with or manipulate online reviews. The laws are intended to prevent companies from “gaming the system” by either soliciting or paying people to write positive things about their businesses, or by pressuring customers into removing or modifying negative comments.

There are laws that help ensure consumers can share their honest opinions without the fear of being bullied by businesses. Here are a few examples of laws that protect online reviewers.

Anti-SLAPP laws

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are lawsuits designed to "silence critics by forcing them to spend money to defend a lawsuit." It's basically a form of lawsuit intimidation. 

Anti-SLAPP laws vary from state to state and protect the right of all of us to speak freely about matters of public interest, allowing people to criticize—and praise—companies, products and services without the fear of ending up in a courtroom.

California’s Yelp law

Under California law AB 2365 or the "Yelp Law," business owners can also be fined up to $10,000 if they retaliate against a reviewer or attempt to get a customer to waive their right to post a negative review. 

Communications Decency Act

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

This protects online intermediaries that host or republish speech (think Yelp, Amazon, YouTube, or even smaller bloggers) from being sued over comments or reviews left on their sites.

Examples of lawsuits over online reviews

Here's a look at some of the lawsuits that have been filed against reviewers and why legal action might not be the best idea for business owners.

The Case of the Missing Brake Pads

A Canadian man was threatened with a lawsuit after he left a review of an auto repair shop claiming it had “predatory technicians and shady advisors" following what he said was an unecessary brake pad replacement. The man asked to see the brake pads that were removed and the shop said they had disposed of them, claiming it was standard practice.

After he left his review, the man was publicly threatened with legal action by the shop in response to his online comments. The business also claimed his friends had piled on and also left negative reviews. “What you are doing is illegal and has consequences," the repair shop responded publicly. "You have a choice ... you can either leave this horrible review up and we will pursue legal action against you and your friends to the fullest extent of the law, or you can be civil and remove the slander."

Of interest in this case:

  • Is the comment of "predatory technicians and shady advisors" enough to be considered slander or libel?
  • Does his review that the company deceived him create a false accusation?
  • Do comments left by the company constitute a threat?

According to news reports, the case is pending and being pursued by the legal department at Mazda.

Tenants sued for leaving one star reviews

A Washington couple were sued for posting one star reviews following an encounter with a company hired by their landlord to fix a leaky roof.  

The couple claimed to have had a bad experience with the roofing company after a phone call with a “rude” receptionist. They each left one star reviews online. The owner of the company called them demanding that they take down the reviews. 

The couple refused, claiming that the reviews were truthful and therefore would stay up. They were then served with a lawsuit filed on behalf of the roofing company for defamation and intentional interference with business expectancy.  

There are two main factors working against the couple in this case:

  • Their landlord hired the roofing company, so they are not actually customers.
  • According to the roofing company, they are not entitled to the information they requested (a project report and timeline) because of the above point.

When asked if the couple had a right to post their negative reviews, the roofing company’s attorney told Seattle’s KING-TV news: 

“It depends why they did that. If they were doing it merely to express their opinion, that's what other customers have done in the past. I don't have an issue with that. ERS doesn't have an issue with that. But when you cross the line and you use this forum to cause intentional harm to a family-owned business and hurt them and their employees and their business, you've crossed the line... They intentionally harmed ERS by posting one-star reviews for the purpose of getting a report they weren't entitled to."

Critics of the lawsuit cite this as an example of a SLAPP.  

The roof was ultimately repaired by another company. Last we looked, the case was pending a court trial.

 

What do you do when a customer is unhappy?

That's one of the most important questions every business owner, marketer and manager has to answer. However, it's not always easy to defuse a situation gracefully.

When a customer or client is unhappy, your best option is to listen. At Reputation X we've found that most people just want to be heard. It sounds simple, but it's true. Of course, giving them something for free often helps too – just sayin'.

Listening doesn't just mean letting a customer vent, and it's most definitely not a way to convince them they're wrong about how they feel. Listening means you're hearing them with the goal of understanding what they really want. Work with your customer to understand why they are unhappy, and be willing to offer a solution to their problem.

Dealing with negative reviews in a level-headed and responsible manner will not only improve your online reputation, but save you time and money dealing with unnecessary lawsuits. 

"Don't dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next. Spend your energies on moving forward toward finding the answer."

– Denis Waitley

Here are a few other tactics for dealing with negative online reviews:

  • Keep a level head: Take some time to process the review and compose a professional response. This is your chance to share your understanding or response to the situation. In most cases, your best bet is to simply apologize for the issue, which shows that you take concerns seriously, and offer a solution to the problem. Be professional and don't let your emotions get involved.
  • Reply in a timely manner: Timeliness shows that you are responsible and play an active role in your company’s online presence. Make sure to address the situation, apologize, and assure that it won’t happen again. If it was a staff related issue, let them know you are taking steps to train your team to become better at their jobs and their interactions with the public.
  • Respond privately: Certain cases in which the reviewer mentions a specific situation or an event that needs rectifying are best handled with direct, private contact with the reviewer. This gives you the opportunity to resolve the issue and mend the relationship with your customer and may even give you a chance to ask them to remove or edit their review. Make sure to address their specific points during this interaction so they know you are really listening. Don't send a form or blanket email.
  • Flag reviews that violate content guidelines: Sites like Yelp will remove reviews that violate its content guidelines. This typically includes reviews that are just plain false, not about your business, harassment, or inappropriate. No lawyers required. 

Going full negative

Or you could do what Botto Bistro's owner did in an effort to remove himself from Yelp's clutches. Chef Davide Cerretini requested customers leave 1-star Yelp reviews in exchange for 25% off a pizza. We don't recommend this option, not just because it is technically against Yelp's guidelines, but because it could backfire in spectacular fashion. Nonetheless, you have to admire Cerretini's grassroots efforts to level the Yelp playing field on his own terms.

Final thoughts

Consumers have a powerful voice, and that power can cripple a brand's reputation in the blink of an eye. Companies have long been aware of this, and their response has been to try and suppress bad reviews: sending out cease and desist letters, suing unruly reviewers or deleting negative posts.

But that strategy only works for so long, as companies will eventually find themselves the subject of yet another damning review. There are just too many people on the internet that are willing to take companies to task for not meeting expectations, whether or not those expectations are practical. 

Need help dealing with negative reviews? Contact us today to develop a review management strategy that will continue to serve your business long-term. 

Can you sue for bad reviews FAQs

Should I sue someone for leaving a negative review about my business?

Although you may have a legitimate case, suing somebody over an online review should be a last resort. Consider the effect it can have on your reputation. Try every other option first, such as contacting the reviewer, responding publicly to the review or flagging it for community guidelines.

What is the best way to deal with negative reviews?

When a customer or client is unhappy, your best option is to listen. Work with your customer to understand why they are unhappy and be willing to offer a solution to their problem. Ask them to consider removing or editing their review. Always remain calm and keep emotion out of the equation.

When can a business sue for online reviews? 

A business can sue if an online review is untruthful, libelous, slander, defamation of character, intentionally interferes with business expectancy, violates privacy rights, or breaches a contract.

 

NOTE: Reputation X is not a law firm and does not dispense legal advice. 


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