Online Review Defamation Case: Jury Verdict is in for Dietz Development LLC v. Perez

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Late last Friday afternoon, as juries are wont to do, the verdict was reached in a Virginia defamation case that I’ve been following for awhile now: Perez v. Dietz Development, LLC (for details in the case, read my earlier post and for the dance turn the case took up at the Virginia Supreme Court read this).

Bottom line, both the plaintiff and the defendant were held to be guilty of defamation by the Virginia jury — and no damages were awarded to either side. Zowie.

It took the jurors the full Friday to deliberate the case, where Fairfax County’s Jane Perez was sued by her contractor for alleged harm to his business (around $750,000) because of the negative reviews that she wrote about her experience with his company in online reviews at Yelp.com as well as Angie’s List.

That’s defamation claim, round one.

Defamation claim, round two, hit when the owner of the company, a man named Christopher Dietz, went online and wrote some stuff in response to the things that Jane Perez had written. Things that Perez would argue defamed her.

Talk about finger-pointing.

Jury Finds Defamation in Perez v. Dietz Development 

Now, each side can argue that they were right — the other side has been found guilty of defamation. Of course, each side has to walk away with no award money in their pocket to cover the costs of litigating this case through a week of trial, much less that appellate review round to the state’s high court.

Who knows what the bottom line is for either of them once all the dollars and cents are added up. (Perez was assisted by the ACLU and Public Citizen, FYI.)

Here’s the thing: the victim of a negative online review (which the jury agreed was defamatory) took the same action that many lawyers understand: he responded to the bad review, and in doing so found himself faced with a defamation claim against him and months and months of this controversy being spotlighted in the local media. As well as spending lots of time and money in the fight.

This is not a lawyer online review case. It is, however, something for lawyers to consider before they decide to reply to any negative online review that pops up on an online review site like Yelp, Avvo, YellowPages.com, etc.

The Dietz Lesson for Lawyers Deciding How to Handle a Bad Online Review 

Lawyers and law firms have lots to consider before taking up their arms in battle against a negative online review.  Practical things that may fly in the face of principles and true justice.  What are the consequences of a lawyer's responding to an online review that is negative, maybe even defamatory?

Will another lawyer be all too happy to pursue that unhappy client’s defamation claim against the attorney or his firm?

Are these cases akin to the warnings that lawyers get when pondering a lawsuit over unpaid attorneys’ fees (i.e., that they are inviting a counterclaim for malpractice no matter how weak it may be, as a strategic defense play)?

Just one more consideration in how to deal with negative reviews these days. It may be painful to be silent in the face of a disturbing, negative online review, but many may argue that it is the prudent thing to do.  Particularly when lawyers are involved and there's the possibility of Bar disciplinary action in addition to civil litigation (as was recently faced by an Illinois attorney who responded to a negative online review, now she's been disciplined for her actions).

Those interested in learning more about this case can review the Complaint filed by Christopher Dietz and Dietz Development that started this lawsuit back in October 2012: