Can you get sued over a negative Yelp review?October 12, 2019
Small businesses often live or die by word-of-mouth, as roughly 86% of U.S. consumers consult online reviews before patronizing a local business, according to a BrightLocal survey.
So what happens if you post a negative review of a business and the business-owner tries to fight back, or even tries to silence you with a lawsuit?
It’s a trend that’s become more common as more and more people share their opinions in online forums and discussion boards, from Yelp (which features over 100 million reviews from users) to the comments sections of businesses’ social media pages.
In July, a Yelp user in Florida named Tom Lloyd told “CBS This Morning” that he was left with more than $25,000 in legal bills after a veterinary practice sued him for defamation over a negative Yelp review. In the review, Lloyd recounted how his dog died at the animal hospital waiting for a surgeon who never showed up.
And Lloyd is not alone.
In 2018, a tourist attraction in Branson, Missouri called Bigfoot on the Strip sued a Kansas man and his daughter over a relatively tepid review posted on TripAdvisor (the man initially gave the business a rating of three out of five stars). The lawsuit sought at least $25,000 and legal costs from the Kansas man, but he was granted a summary judgement in August 2019, which terminated the lawsuit, according to court records.
And in 2015, a Colorado couple reportedly racked up $65,000 in legal fees (including a $15,000 settlement payment) fighting a defamation lawsuit brought by a flooring company the couple negatively reviewed on Yelp.
“Most Americans don’t realize they can be sued for writing an online review,” says Evan Mascagni, an attorney who currently serves as Policy Director at the Public Participation Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for First Amendment rights.
“With the rise of user-generated [review] content sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Google, we’ve really seen a shift where folks are being sued for their speech online,” Mascagni tells CNBC Make It.
With so many consumers posting online reviews of businesses, it’s not surprising that some business-owners might take exception to the occasional negative review, says Carl Settlemeyer, an attorney in the Federal Trade Commission’s bureau of consumer protection.
“Sometimes [a consumer’s review] may go too far, sometimes a business may be trying to throw its weight around and trying to silence a consumer,” Settlemeyer tells CNBC Make It.
Mascagani goes as far as to say some people are trying to “hijack our judicial system to silence, intimidate and harass critics of theirs.”
Are reviewers protected?
While Settlemeyer notes that businesses suing consumers over negative online reviews is far from an everyday occurrence across the country, it’s become enough of an issue that Congress felt the need to pass a law in 2016, called the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), to protect consumers’ ability to leave an honest online review of a business without being punished.
The CRFA banned the use…