Yelp Review Gets Reviewer Sued by Company Claiming Significant Damage From Single, Bad Online Review: Is This The Case That Sets the Precedent for Internet Defamation Suits Based on Bad Online Reviews?

If this isn't the start of a trend, I don't know what is.  There's a sizable case over on the East Coast that seems to be holding its traction against the usual arguments of free speech in a case where defamation damages are being claimed based upon an online review.  I think that lots of lawyers are going to be watching what happens here.

(It's not that these bad reviews haven't been the subject of lawsuits filed by lawyers already:  there's a Dallas law firm that has filed a $50,000 damage suit for a bad review on Google ("Ben Doe") and there's a Florida lawyer who sued for removal of a bad online review at a lawyer-review site and had the case settled pretty quickly.)

Why?  I've already had more than one discussion with clients in different parts of the country that are angry and fretful about the opportunity offered to anyone out there to write a bad review of their work and have it published for all to see at Yelp or Avvo or whereever.  There are lots and lots of review sites these days.

The calls that I've had regarding bad reviews are from lawyers in firms that practice in emotional areas: family law, criminal defense, etc. where someone is going to be upset.  It's almost an old joke that no one likes their ex-spouse's divorce lawyer.  

Most of my law firm clientele are concerned with how to deal with snarly reviews at these online sites, when they are prohibited or limited in publishing client testimonials from clients that are very pleased with the work the lawyers have done.  They aren't so concerned with the single bad review as their perceived inability to balance that bad review out with the numerous client letters, cards, and testimonials that they have on file where clients offered stellar reviews of the firm and its work.

It isn't fair, granted.  However, no one has brought up the idea of suing the bad reviewer.  Yet.  I'm thinking that those lawsuits may be coming.  Consider this.

The $750,000 Internet Defamation Lawsuit Out of Virginia

Dietz Development is a small District of Columbia business owned by Christopher Dietz that Fairfax, Virginia resident Jane Perez contracted to do some work on her home last February.  Seems Mr. Dietz and Ms.Perez are acquainted because they went to high school together, and that's why Dietz Development got the call.

Now, these two ex-students and former friends are on opposite sites of a defamation suit that is getting international attention (like this article in Great Britain's Daily Mail).  Dietz Development is alleging a loss of $750,000 in lost profits and damage to the company's reputation (or business goodwill) because of one, single bad review posted on the Yelp site.

Read the complaint here (provided by The Washington Post).  The Yelp review appears as Exhibit B (second post on page).

There was a similar review posted to membership review site Angie's List, which has been included in the complaint (see Exhibit A) but isn't getting the spotlight that the Yelp review has garnered, perhaps because the readers of Angie's List are not the general public but only those who pay a membership fee to access the Angie's List web site.

Judge Grants Restraining Order: Reviewer Must Edit The Online Review as Case Proceeds

This week, a judge granted Dietz's motion for a temporary order requiring Jane Perez to change the online review although the order does not require that the bad review be taken offline in its entirety.  (Whether this is drawing a line on potential damages claims or giving the plaintiff a big hint that he's going to win this thing is too soon to tell.)

Media reports are that Perez has been ordered to remove her allegations that Mr. Dietz stole jewelry from her home.  I haven't been able to find the actual court order online (yet).

What Was in the Yelp Review That Got Jane Perez Sued?

The lawsuit alleges that not only did the review complain about the quality of the work that was done, or not done, it also claims that Mr. Dietz stole jewelry from the home (theory: he was the only one with a key to the house aside from the home owner at the time that the jewelry went missing) and that Dietz was operating without the proper license to do business.

Of course, Mr. Dietz posted his own reply to her bad review.  He's arguing that wasn't enough.  From this single bad review, the plaintiff is claiming a huge amount of damage ($750,000).

And this case is proceeding through the courts. It's not being tossed.  And the judge just made the review edit the review.  

In my opinion, online reviews of businesses -- including law firms -- are going to be considered in a different manner than book reviews (where book reviewers are also facing the risk of being sued for a bad review).

These online business reviews may be able to hurt a business more than a single bad book review, also my opinion here.  After all, a book review is understood to be the opinion of a work of fiction or non-fiction and the reader understands that what is poison to one may be meat to another.  It's subjective.

An online review of a service provider, on the other hand, can be objectively judged.  Was the work shoddy or not?  Expert opinion and factual support can provide an answer.  Was there a theft?  Who did it?  These are things that can be proven with facts in a courtroom.  Same thing with the licensure issue.  Maybe this is true for damages sustained from a bad review, as well.

Will more businesses sue for bad online reviews?  Will law firms tee it up?  I think so.

And where are the publishers in all this?  They sure are quiet and I'm wondering if that's smart.  

Here's my first big question: where is the responsibility of the publisher in these online review defamation cases?  I'm wondering if the online web site that profits by building a review directory for the public isn't going to be held by a judge somewhere to have a corresponding duty regarding the reviews that are placed upon its site pages.

Surely there are going to be plaintiffs that include these sites in their pleadings; after all, these are probably deeper pockets than the individual reviewer.  My little voice is asking, "if someone claims a criminal act like theft, then isn't that stepping across some sort of publisher duty line in an online review of a business?"

Another big question I have: what does this do to trustworthy reviews?  Free speech is important and it's priceless in its value.  Something that we may learn once it's gone (like privacy rights) in the near future.

I do read online reviews before making a purchase or inviting someone into my home for repairs.  Will these suits simply insure that the bad reviews won't get published out of fear of reprisal and I won't be able to learn that the book or the plumber or the car is a bad deal?

If this litigation happens, then what's the value of the review site to me?  Why bother reading CitiSearch for a restaurant to check out if all that CitiSearch can offer me is fluff stuff?


The Power and Purpose of Citizen Journalists: The Baltimore SWAT Standoff and the Belize Mystery Surrounding John McAfee as Two Examples of Why We Need Citizen Journalists

Citizen journalism may not be respected by traditionally educated and trained journalists, but citizen journalists sure seem to be making lots of headway in reporting news via the web.

I've been watching and reading citizen journalism for awhile now, with growing respect.  Why?  Well, because some people are doing this at the risk of their lives - like citizen journalist Rami Ahmad Al-Sayed who died when he was only 27 years old, leaving behind a wife and young daughter, in order to spread the word over the internet about the military assault he was witnessing first hand in Homs, Syria.

Critics snub the idea of citizen journalists for various reasons:  first, their work does not reach the same level of quality as the professional journalist.  They are amateurs.   Second, citizen journalists cannot be trusted to be objective.  They are biased.  Third, citizen journalists aren't regulated - they have no set of rules or ethical codes imposed upon them as do members of the main stream media.  They are rogues.  

I understand that professionals who have studied in their field for years and thereafter dedicated years of their lives to journalism as a career path aren't too happy with these interlopers.  As an attorney who has seen the practice of law change to allow non-lawyers to practice law in some ways, I get it.

However, when it comes to citizen journalists, I don't care.

I don't trust the main stream media (MSM) much these days -- for one thing, the same finger pointing that is made against citizen journalists has been made much too often against members of the Fourth Estate in recent years for me to blindly trust today's news media.

What?  If you want to delve more into the sad failures of modern, professional journalism then I suggest you check out Joseph Campbell's 2010 book, Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism - which you can read for free at Google Books (at least you could when I typed this).  Or read the witty column in today's Gawker by Hamilton Nolan, "Mainstream Media Attack Dogs Think We're Asking Too Many Questions About Orange Pie."  It pretty much sums things up.

There's room in my world for both types of journalism, and maybe that's how things should be.  Here are two examples of citizen journalists blogging online that I've been following this week.

The Baltimore SWAT Standoff Blogger

Frank James MacArthur considers himself to be a citizen journalist when he isn't driving a cab up in Baltimore and he writes a blog called "The Baltimore Spectator."  Recently, after MacArthur didn't show in court for a violation of probation hearing on an old weapons charge, the police showed up at his house to issue a warrant.

MacArthur didn't cooperate, and it turned into a five hour standoff.  SWAT was called, but things ended peacefully at 11 pm which MacArthur stated that he intended to coordinate with the evening television news.

Now, sure, MacArthur may have done some of this in order to spotlight his citizen journalist site.  However, MacArthur also had a serious distrust of local law enforcement and chronicled the events as they transpired on the web for what he viewed as his own self-protection.

Belize Murder Investigation and The Mysterious John McAfee

Meanwhile, for a few weeks now the founder of a popular computer security software company, John McAfee, remains at large even though there were reports earlier today that he had been arrested at the Belize-Mexico border.  John McAfee has been blogging his story on the internet as he remains out of the hands of Belize police who are seeking custody of Mr. McAfee as a person of interest in the murder of McAfee's next-door neighbor.  McAfee's blog is "Who is McAfee?"

John McAfee is blogging about his successes in evading capture by the local authorities as well as his concerns that if he is taken by Belize police he will be harmed or killed - and this continuing story is making national news basically because of McAfee's own reporting of events thus far.

Belize police officials are calling McAfee "paranoid."  John McAfee's blog posts, however, don't seem to be the rambling, irrational posts of someone who is mentally ill.  His position is that he believed that if he had peacefully cooperated with police at the get-go, he might be killed.

I believe that blogging is important, but never more so than in situations like this, where individual citizens are sharing their stories - as they happen - with the public at large.  Maybe they aren't the most objective reports; maybe they aren't written as well as they could be; and maybe there's no set of rules or guidelines applicable to their work.

However, in both of these blogging stories by citizen journalists, you have first-hand accounts of what local law enforcement is doing, or not doing, together with the interpretation of those events by the suspect of that police power action. 

I want to read this.  I think lots of people do. I think we need the citizen journalist and I hope that citizen journalism becomes more respected, and protected, over time.    

Citizen journalists blogging on the internet (and I include micro-blogging at Twitter) bring information  to the reader that professional journalists don't provide.  Perhaps they can't provide it, I'll have to ponder that one.

As for the expansion of the police power through technological advances, and how privacy rights are endangered today and Big Brother scenarios are rapidly becoming reality, I'll write about that on my opinion blog soon enough.