Online reviews are serious business and have now become one of the first tools consumers utilize when choosing a local business. According to a recent survey from BrightLocal, nearly 90% of American consumers reported consulting online reviews before they decided to patronize a particular business.
But as more and more people share their opinions on online forums like Yelp, Facebook, TripAdvisor, and Google, many business owners are fighting back against negative reviews and some have even filed lawsuits to try to silence critics and protect their brand.
In July, a veterinarian in DeLand, Florida filed a defamation suit against Yelp user Tom Lloyd for a negative Yelp review in which Lloyd recounted how his poodle named Rembrandt died at the animal hospital while waiting for a surgeon who never arrived. In addition to losing his dog, Lloyd claims the lawsuit left him with more than $25,000 in legal bills.
Similar lawsuits have been filed by an entertainment business in Missouri which sued a Kansas family over a three-star review on TripAdvisor and a flooring company in Colorado who sued a couple after leaving a negative review on Yelp. The couple reportedly spent $65,000 in legal fees fighting the lawsuit including a $15,000 settlement payment.
Are reviewers protected?
While the trend of businesses suing consumers for negative online reviews is not an everyday occurrence, it has become enough of an issue for Congress to enact the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA) in 2016 to protect consumers from punishment over honest online review.
Under the CRFA, businesses are prohibited from using non-disparagement clauses in any contracts that aren’t open to reasonable negotiation. This allows the government to crack down on businesses that threaten lawsuits against consumers who leave negative reviews or won’t edit them or take them down after they’ve been posted.
The law has been used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to issue complaints against businesses that have allegedly used non-disparagement clauses in contracts in order to sue consumers who left honest reviews online.
There are also other laws on the books in many U.S. states to protect people from frivolous lawsuits that infringe on their First Amendment rights. Twenty-nine states – including Florida – currently have anti-SLAPP statutes to make it easier for defendants to seek dismissal of meritless lawsuits and can also impose financial penalties on plaintiffs who lose an anti-SLAPP motion.
If you are sued by a business that claims to have a non-disparagement provision, you can report the lawsuit on the FTC website. Each state’s attorney general also has the power to enforce the CRFA, so the violation should be reported there as well. It is also strongly advisable to contact an attorney with anti-SLAPP experience to discuss your options.
While there is some protection offered to consumers under the CRFA, it does not prohibit businesses from suing a customer for defaming them in cases where a customer posts a false negative review online. And, anti-SLAPP laws can penalize reviewers who bring an anti-SLAPP motion in bad faith, or with false claims against a business.
What you need to remember when leaving an online review:
- Make sure your review is truthful and reflects your own genuine experience without exaggerating or concealing facts.
- Stick with your honest opinion and avoid broad generalizations.
- If you make an accusation in your review, be sure you can support your claims with documented evidence like a receipt or written correspondence.