Using the Law to Protect Your Reputation Online
Mat Sorensen


June 23, 2015

Have you given a negative review of company? Have you ever posted something unflattering about someone you didn’t like?  Do you own a business with a Facebook, Yelp, Google+, or Linkedin page? Well, there’s no shortages of lawsuits about posts people make about businesses. And I get it. If you order a Pepsi and you get a Coke, well that’s one start down on Yelp. If you wait on hold for more than 10 minutes, that calls for a Facebook post about your “crappy” mortgage loan company. While these are trivial things we may have been critical about when posting reviews or comments on-line, there have been hundreds of cases over on-line reviews or comments about businesses that have resulted in legal action.

Consider the case of Jane Perez who wrote scathing reviews of her contractor on Yelp where she accused him on botching her home renovation and stealing jewelry during construction. Well, the allegations of Ms. Perez weren’t truthful and her contractor sued her for defamation and alleged $750,000 in damages from lost business as a result of the un-truthful review. Ms. Perez counter-sued alleging that her contractor’s responses weren’t true either and she too was defamed. The case went to a jury who eventually found that both parties were untruthful in there on-line comments and postings and as a result didn’t award damages to either. However, as reported by Mandi Woodruff on Yahoo Finance, not everyone case ends like this. In a recent case, a disgruntled patient of 2 Arizona surgeons created an entire website alleging that they botched her plastic surgery. Well, the Arizona surgeons found her website un-truthful and took her to court and won damages of $12 million dollars. And lastly, Southwest Airlines sued a passenger for defamation, slander, and libel when the passenger posted numerous complaints about the airline and its agent on her personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. The complaints alleged that the airline refused to allow the passenger to sit next to her children.

There are a few important legal lessons to be learned from these companies.

1. Truth is the Legal Standard. Every case that seeks to silence negative reviews or social media comments must allege that the comments posted are not truthful. The first amendment protects all of us when giving negative reviews or comments but only when those reviews are truthful. Consequently, any case brought to remove or silence a negative comment or review must allege that the comment is not truthful. If the comment or review was the truth, then there is nothing legally that you can do to force the other person to remove or correct the comment. You should certainly attempt to make it right though by contacting the customer to see what can be done to fix whatever the situation is that caused the negative statements.

2. Defamation and Libel. If the information posted about you or your business on-line is untruthful, then the legal action you may bring is called defamation. There are two types of defamation. The first type is libel and this has to do with defamation that is written. This would include on-line writings. The second type is slander and this has to do with defamation that is spoken. In order to win a defamation suit you must show the following; a) that a statement was made, b) that it was published for others to see, c) that the statement caused you injury,  and d) that the statement was false.

Awards in a defamation suit generally consist of removal of the false statement(s) and damages for the amount of lost profits or injury that was caused. Keep in mind that while lawsuits can be powerful and can remedy harm caused to you or your business, they are also costly and they don’t resolve your case in an expedient manner.

Before heading off to court though, heed the advice of digital marketing expert Chris Bennett. Chris is the CEO of 97th Floor and was a guest on our recent radio show. Chris suggested that if your business is subjected to negative comments or reviews on-line, that it is best to attempt to remedy those issues off-line. Don’t write a spirited rebuttal on-line. If you are dealing with a disgruntled person, you are not going to win them over by telling them they are wrong. And, you typically add more fuel to the fire when a comment thread or review thread grows from back-and-forth comments between a business and a customer. This is sage advice and reminds me of a review I read on about a vacation rental I was looking to rent. I was distracted by a 1 star review that was given on a property I was interested in. I read the back and forth between the renter and the property owner and without knowing who was right or wrong (how could a third party), I was only left with a feeling that the property owner was hard to work with because they kept arguing in the comments instead of leaving them as is or saying thanks for your feedback. Instead of arguing on-line in responses to comments, Chris advises to businesses to reach out to the disgruntled customer through phone or e-mail and find a way to make them a happy customer.

If you’re unable to resolve the negative comment or review through personal communication and if that comment or review is false AND is causing you or your business injury, you can bring a lawsuit against the person who caused you harm and can resolve it in the Courts. You could also engage a lawyer to write a letter warning of a lawsuit if the false comment or review is not corrected. Keep in mind, a lawsuit can be a long and costly process so you only want to engage in this effort if you truly are being damaged. If only your feelings were hurt, or if the statements were mostly true, then don’t waste your time with a lawsuit as it wont be worth the legal fees.


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