Online Reviewers Sued for Defamation? How to Protect Yourself

The carpet cleaner you hired was late, rude, and left the carpets dirtier than before he arrived. So you find his company’s Facebook page and write a few lines saying what a poor job he did for you. A few months later, you get a letter in the mail. You are being sued by the carpet cleaner for defamation! Is this possible? In today’s social-media driven world, it is.

Technology has given consumers unparalleled opportunities to gather and share information about businesses. With just a few clicks, consumers can share their opinions with millions of people. Businesses are also aware of the power of social media; in fact, many businesses actively seek good reviews and take action to silence bad ones. Suing a consumer for defamation can serve as a powerful way to silence a bad review.

A carpet and rug cleaning business recently sued seven people for defamation after they posted negative reviews about the businesses on a popular consumer review website. According to the owner, the negative reviews brought a 30 percent drop in sales, and he was forced to lay off dozens of people. A lawyer in California, a plastic surgeon in Chicago, and a contractor in Virginia have all filed similar suits.

Although these stories may scare consumers, the companies who bring these lawsuits face many difficulties. First, social-media sites like Facebook, Yelp, and Twitter are protected from many types of lawsuit by federal law. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects online service providers from being sued for the actions of their users. So the companies cannot sue the consumer review websites that display the bad reviews, only the person who posted the review. But this invites the second problem: because reviewers are not generally required to post under their real name, companies often don’t know whom to sue. To find the identity of the reviewer, the company must get a court order which requires the website to identify the person. Most consumer review websites fight these requests forcefully.

Even if a company can obtain the identity of the reviewer, defamation lawsuits are difficult to win. The reviewer can escape liability by proving that the review was true, or based on personal opinion. So a review stating that the carpet cleaner was late is not defamation if it is true. And a review claiming that the carpet cleaner is the worst you’ve ever used is not defamation if it is your personal opinion. This shows why defamation suits against consumers typically fail.

There are several ways to protect yourself from a defamation lawsuit without losing your right to voice your opinion. First, only write reviews for companies and products you have actually used. Reviews based on anything less than personal knowledge are far more vulnerable to a defamation claim. Second, don’t exaggerate. Focus on the facts, not just getting revenge on a company. Third, if your complaint is very serious, consider submitting it through another entity. You can reach out to your state attorney general’s office, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or your local office of the Better Business Bureau.  These organizations can insulate consumers from defamation lawsuits if they are used effectively.

Government agencies and the BBB typically investigate and substantiate claims before they publish them. Therefore, it is almost impossible for a reviewer who submits a complaint through these entities to be sued for defamation. Additionally, these entities sometimes offer mediation or arbitration services to help reach an amicable resolution for the consumer. Companies face pressure to respond to a complaint from the BBB, because the company’s BBB rating is at risk if they don’t resolve the problem. Government agencies have even more power. They can make legally binding requests for information, and can bring a lawsuit on behalf of any consumer who was wronged.

As long as consumers use good judgment, and follow the tips outlined above, it is unlikely that they will ever be sued for defamation. But the danger of these suits serves as a great reminder to consumers: be fair and composed in your company reviews, or else they may come back to haunt you.

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