Small businesses heavily rely on consumer review websites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and even Google to promote and generate new business. These sites also provide a forum for consumers to “vent” about recent interactions with businesses, business owners and the like. Many consumers, however, fail to recognize that reviews left on these websites are not immune from claims of defamation, specifically libel. Reviews which cross the line from offering an opinion relating to a specific business interaction (which is a form of protected speech) to implying facts which may be untrue about a business or business owner (such as the commission of a fraud or that a consumer was taken advantage of by a certain business) can lead to legal repercussions in the form of a defamation lawsuit.
In one such lawsuit, a consumer had retained a flooring contractor in Staten Island to refinish her living room and dining room wood floors. Unfortunately, the consumer was less than pleased with the work and left the business and its owner negative reviews on Yelp.com. In the review, the consumer referred to the business owner as a “con artist,” “scam”, “liar” and also stated that the owner “robs customers.” Based on the content of these Yelp reviews, the business owner sued the consumer for libel per se. The court ultimately found that these Yelp reviews were defamatory against the business owner because words such as “scam,” “con artist,” and “robs,” “imply actions approaching criminal wrongdoing rather than someone who failed to live up to the terms of a contract.” The consumer was ordered to pay damages to the business owner in the amount of $1,000.
Consumer-based websites are great resources for consumers to learn of the reputations of specific businesses before dealing with them. They are also powerful tools in helping resolve disputes between consumers and businesses. There is, however, a fine line between expressing opinion – even over the Internet – concerning a particular business interaction, and on the other hand implying outright criminality to a person or business because of a negative consumer experience.