The negative online customer review — like its cousin, the angry user comment — is not usually a paragon of civility. "Can someone please tell me why it's dark, dank, and smells like a sewer in here?" writes Yelp user Michele W. about Jake's Wayback Burger in Brooklyn, N.Y. Not very nice. And who knows if it's true? (Other reviews say Jake's is "pretty good.") But Michele's comment will live on forever on Jake's Yelp page, discouraging potential customers who don't fancy their burgers with a side of septic tank. Sites like Yelp and Angie's List can be a bane for businesses, and at least one business owner, Christopher Dietz in Virginia, isn't taking it anymore, says Justin Jouvenal at The Washington Post:
Angered by what she thought was shoddy work on her home, Fairfax resident Jane Perez did what has become the go-to form of retail vengeance in the internet age: She logged on to Yelp and posted scathing reviews of the D.C. firm that did the job.
Perez ticked off a list of accusations, including damage to her home, an invoice for work the contractor did not perform and jewelry that disappeared. She closed one post by fuming, "Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor."
The contractor’s response to her one-star takedown? Fight back.
Christopher Dietz filed a $750,000 internet defamation lawsuit against Perez last month, saying the postings on Yelp and others on Angie’s List were false and sent customers fleeing. He is also asking a Fairfax County court for a preliminary injunction to keep her from writing similar reviews.
Jouvenal reports that businesses are increasingly turning to the courts to push back against negative online reviews, part of a strategy, consumer advocates say, to force customers to think twice about mouthing off online. Perez says that defending herself in court will cost her thousands of dollars in legal fees. However, businesses say unfair, inaccurate, or just plain crazy reviews can lead to an appreciable decline in customers. Dietz claims that Perez has smeared his reputation and cost him $300,000 in business.
While most of these suits are dismissed under the First Amendment's free speech protections, customers can be found guilty of defaming businesses if they post factually incorrect accusations, as opposed to opinions. The lesson? Customers should choose their words wisely before bashing companies online.