A matter of fact: Attorney Milt Johns comments on 750K lawsuit for defamatory posts on Yelp

Hitting the news earlier this week, Jane Perez, a Virginia homeowner is the defendant in a defamation lawsuit for $750,000 after she published alleged falsehoods on the Yelp page of a home repair contractor. This morning I contacted the D.C. area law firm representing the Plaintiff, Christopher Dietz, who seeks damages in addition to the $300,000 in lost business revenue.[i] According to a recent article in The Washington Post, Yelp has “84 million visitors a month and 33 million reviews.”[ii] From reviews of restaurants and retailers to law firms and other professionals, Yelp[iii] has a reputation as an industry leader and consumers rely on the site populated by user-generated content.

In this case (read the complaint), the defendant, Jane Perez, may have crossed the line in publishing negative statements about the plaintiff. Most consumers are learning, and this case helps highlight, the law regarding defamation and its applicability to posts on social media sites such as Yelp that are populated by user-generated content.

I asked Milt Johns, of Day & Johns, PLLC[iv] about defamation. The following responses are general information and not meant as legal advice:

1)      Why is this case important and how does this case affect public policy? Johns: “From a policy standpoint, the fact that review sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List are viewed by millions of consumers makes defamation all the more damaging for businesses.  Businesses like Dietz Development stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost prospective customers when they are defamed on line.  Consumers must be careful that what they are sharing is truly an opinion, or if it is a fact that it is a true fact.”

Dietz had a five-star Yelp rating, stating Dietz had a “high degree of professionalism.”[v]

2)      What are misconceptions this case could highlight? Johns: “When a person communicates information to a third party (by any means – speech, letter, or Internet posting) that is false, the individual knows it is false or recklessly disregards the falsity of information, and that information damages the reputation of another entity, the communicating person may have committed defamation.”

Perez accused Dietz of stealing jewelry from her home in addition to performing shoddy work, theft of jewelry being factual allegation of the commission of a crime.[vi]

3)      What can consumers say without crossing the line? Johns: “So, if a consumer posts on Yelp that they were dissatisfied with a contractor’s work, they are publishing protected opinion material.  The consumer could say, for instance, that they were unhappy, they thought the work was sloppy, they thought it wasn’t a good value, they received poor customer service, or similar opinion statements.  Where the consumer crosses the line is when they make factual statements that are false that damage the contractors reputation.  So, a consumer could say the contractor did a  terrible job on my house, but they couldn’t add that the contractor stole jewelry from their house if in fact the contractor hadn’t stolen the jewelry.   Claiming someone is a criminal or engaged in criminal activity is only protected speech if it is true.”

A 2011 Harvard study cited in The Washington Post article indicates a one star increase, among Seattle reviews, can lead to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.[vii]

4)      Why is Yelp so important to consumers? Johns: “Web sites like Yelp and Angie’s List are important information sharing media that provide an important public service of disseminating consumer information.  Providing reviews – good and bad – in the form of opinions is the foundation for the value to consumers of these websites.  However, just because a person communicates on the Internet doesn’t grant that person any special privileges when it comes to the law of defamation.”

There may be consumers who think they can say whatever they want online. This case sends a message: if you make defamatory claims about others online, then you might be sued. Even if you delete and remove the false statements of fact, there are records of the data, how it was seen, and the damage is not mitigated by the deletion of the content.

Yelp, like other consumer fueled sites, has policies and take-down provisions. I contacted a representative at Yelp today and at this time I have not received any statement about take-down procedures. Yelp does have a review filter and I look forward to sharing updates about Yelp’s systems and processes.

Have you experienced what you believe is a defamatory post on Yelp? Did you do anything about it? I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

 


[i] COMPLAINT: Dietz Development, LLC and Christopher Dietz v. Jane Perez

[ii] The Washington Post: Virginia woman is sued over her Yelp review. By Justin Jouvenal, Published: December 4

[iii] Yelp Chicago “Yelp is the best way to find great local businesses”

[iv] Milt Johns is a founding member of Day & Johns, PLLC

[v] See Washington Post article above

[vi] See Washington Post article above

[vii] See Washington Post article above

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    Nick Augustine

    Nick Augustine is a freelance copywriter, blogger, broadcaster, publicity and marketing strategist, and he teaches SEO and social media. Nick writes legal industry columns for ChicagoNow and Chicago Lawyer magazine. Nick is an alumnus of Marquette University and The John Marshall Law School and is an active Alumni Board member. Nick works small businesses and professional service providers in Chicago and Dallas-Fort Worth.

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