Online reviews can help a company polish its reputation and boost business. For example, Hot Doug’s in Chicago was likely thrilled to see a review from Elite ’12 that gave the company 5 stars with comments like, “Best foodie stop! If you want to get down on some hot dogs… you must visit hot dougs!!” This is the kind of publicity that companies typically pay copywriters to generate, and their fees are often quite high. Getting a pat on the back for free is quite a gift.
But not all comments are so positive. People come into restaurants with specific expectations, and they may impose these same high standards on everyone they meet, including their doctors, movers and repair professionals. A poor experience can lead to a very poor review, and sometimes, those reviews turn into lawsuits.
A man in Oregon learned this the hard way when he went to a Lake Oswego dentist and posted a negative review about his experience on Yelp. Even though the man took the comments down, under pressure from the dentist, KOMO news reports that the dentist is seeking $300,000 from the reviewer for lost profits, reputation damage and emotional distress.
Lawsuits like this can be frightening, but they’re often not successful. For example, a law professor in California researched the history of 28 cases like this and found that 16 were dismissed and six were settled. It’s difficult for people who are suing to prove that the comments posted aren’t true and/or that they were made with malicious intent. It’s also difficult for people who are suing to prove that the comments were made with the express purpose of ruining a company instead of just describing an experience. If the burden of proof is always on the person who sues, the person who writes might come out ahead.
Unfortunately, some of these cases due end up with victories for the companies that are attacked. There are some comments that could be considered defamatory in court, including comments that suggest that someone is a thief or a crook or a drunk, and those comments could cost people a significant amount of money.
People who are threatened with a lawsuit can take to the web in their own defense, and sometimes, these counterattacks can put the whole issue to rest. Recently, a man who makes his living doing Internet marketing was threatened by a moving company with a lawsuit over comments his wife made about the company’s services. This man did what he does best: He covered the issue on his blog, and in just a few days, the story went viral and received well over 76,000 views in one single day. This blog post served to further damage the reputation of the moving company, as many users chimed in with their own poor experiences of the company or they posted poor reviews of the moving company based on the service they’d shown the Internet writer. It’s a David-and-Goliath tale, to be sure, but it is one avenue people can explore if a company threatens to sue.
The best defense is a good offense: Stick to the facts while writing online reviews. It’s tempting to spout off terrible insults and detailed tales of woe online and passionately convince everyone to stay away from a company you hate, but doing so makes lawyers really happy. By being truthful, honest and fair, these suits might not ever be filed. Find out more about how to stay safe online by visiting