Can I Sue for Bad Reviews Against My Business?
Word of mouth has always been instrumental in attracting clients or customers to one’s business. With the advent of social media, word of mouth has now become even more ubiquitous. Yelp, one of the most visited review platforms with 100 million-plus posts on it, is a commonly used resource by consumers. A survey by BrightLocal, in fact, found that 86 percent of consumers will consult a review site like Yelp before patronizing a business.
If you own or operate a business and you get a particularly negative review, what can you do? Honest reviews are protected by federal laws, and California also has in place legislation that preserves people’s right to free and honest speech. Nonetheless, if a review goes overboard—generally from relating an actual experience to falsehood and defamation—then the reviewer can indeed be sued. Suing every bad but honest comment, however, can be counterproductive.
If you feel your business in or around Santa Ana, California, has been subjected to a defamatory review or a posted comment that is harming your business as a result, contact me at the Martinez Law Office, Inc.
I have more than four decades of experience in business litigation, and I will review the situation with you and advise you of your best options going forward. If a lawsuit is warranted, I will pursue the case vigorously to protect your rights and interests. My firm proudly represents clients throughout Southern California, including the counties of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
Examples of Review Lawsuits
In 2019, a man who took his dog to a veterinary clinic in Florida only to see his pet die while waiting for a physician who never showed up ended up paying more than $25,000 in legal bills after posting a review about his experience.
The year before, a Kansas man and his daughter who posted a review on TripAdvisor about a tourist attraction called Bigfoot on the Strip were sued for $25,000. The review gave the attraction three out of five stars. The court, however, gave a summary judgment in favor of the defendant.
In 2015, a Colorado couple faced a lawsuit over a Yelp review about a flooring company. They claim they ran up $65,000 in legal fees defending themselves, including a $15,000 settlement.
The U.S. Congress Responds
In 2016, Congress passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CFRA), which was designed to protect fair and honest online reviews by prohibiting businesses from establishing what are called non-disparagement clauses in their contracts. In other words, businesses cannot enforce provisions that bar customers and clients from posting honest comments and assessments, whether in online reviews or social media posts, including uploaded photos and videos.
Specifically, the CFRA makes it illegal for a business to:
bar or restrict the ability of a person who is a party to that firm’s contract to review the company’s products, services, or conduct;
impose a penalty or fee against someone who gives a review; or
require people to give up their intellectual property rights in the content of their reviews.
California’s Anti-SLAPP Law
The Golden State has a strong Anti-SLAPP law in place. SLAPP stands for strategic lawsuits against public participation. The statute was enacted in 1992 under the Code of Civil Procedure section 415.16. The law provides for a special motion in a civil proceeding to strike a complaint when the complaint arises from an activity exercising the rights of petition or free speech.
The legislation specifically applies to statements made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding; statements made in connection with an issue under consideration by a governmental body; statements made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest; and any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of free speech or petition rights in connection with “a public issue or an issue of public interest.”
Bad Reviews vs. Defamation
A bad or negative review that is based on someone’s actual experience can be damaging to one’s business, but it is rarely legally actionable.
If you run a restaurant, for instance, and you claim you have “the meatiest hamburger” in town, a customer may post a review that says “The so-called meatiest hamburger is no meatier than the one down the street at Joe’s Burger Joint.” That is pretty much one person’s honest opinion from his or her experience. However, if the review claims that “the meatiest burger in town doesn’t even contain real meat, just leftover garbage,” you may have a case of defamation.
A reviewer who lies or makes stuff up just to disparage a business is treading on dangerous ground, bordering on defamation, and could end up facing legal action.
To Sue or Not to Sue?
Using the above example, a lawsuit may be necessary if a review steps out of bounds and makes up things just to harm your business. This can be a tricky calculation, of course, unless the review is so full of lies and venom that the intent is obvious. You should rely on the evaluation of an experienced business law attorney to determine if a lawsuit is warranted. Sometimes, a lawsuit may even exacerbate matters by bringing additional publicity to the issue.
Get Personalized Legal Counsel
Every business should monitor reviews and what’s being posted about them online. There are ways to respond that can help mitigate any harm that’s being done, but the best practice is to run an operation that leaves customers satisfied, with no fodder for bad reviews.
That being said, you never know what a customer might think about you and your business and what they might post in a public forum. At times, a comment or two may go overboard, so you need to be prepared for all manner of responses, including a possible lawsuit.
Wherever you are in Southern California, if you feel your business has been damaged through a dishonest or spiteful review, contact me immediately at the Martinez Law Office, Inc. I will review the situation with you and together we can fashion an appropriate response. If legal action is necessary, I will aggressively defend your rights and interests. Reach out with all your questions and concerns.