Boston business attorneys and First Amendment free speech advocates alike are closely watching the developments in the case of Dietz Development v. Perez, unfolding in the Virginia Supreme Court.
At the center of the controversy is a business relationship gone sour, followed by a scathing review on a popular online platform.
The plaintiff business in this case is seeking $750,000 in damages for a bad review that a former customer gave him regarding his contracting work inside her home.
She claims she was billed for work that wasn’t completed, her home suffered extensive damages and jewelry went missing during the course of the work. She concluded her review with an admonition for other customers not to use “this nightmare contractor.”
And apparently, those other customers listened. The contractor, who denies the customer’s most serious allegations, said that one review essentially crippled his business. First Amendment watchers say that cases like this serve to shut down any negative feedback on companies, even when it’s accurate.
However, businesses take the stance that they have to be aggressive because allowing a falsehood to be perpetuated online has the potential to reach untold thousands of customers, thereby doing an inordinate amount of harm to their livelihood. This is especially troubling considering that there is no burden of proof that posters on these sites have to meet before lobbing allegations. Companies are left with no choice but to file a lawsuit. In a situation where someone has lied about your business online, defamation is usually the primary cause of action.
The truth is one of the main defenses to defamation, which is why it’s not a good idea to file a lawsuit against someone who simply wrote a bad review, so long as it was true. However, malicious lies online can hurt a business and owners have every right to fight back.
To prove this claim, plaintiff businesses need to show that there were false statements of facts. Online reviewers may be able to evade some liability in these cases if they can show that their statements were not facts, but rather opinions, which are protected under the First Amendment. However, if a person is found to be offering up false opinions that imply the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as their basis, this crosses the line from free speech to defamation.
The Dietz case could set a strong precedent for how the handling of future cases.
According to the plaintiff, his company, which had been in business for eight years, had a solid reputation prior to accepting a job for the defendant. He was hired to perform some plumbing work, paint, refinish the floors and conduct some other work.
However, the defendant claims the work was not well-done, and she had to spend thousands of dollars in order to have it redone.
The plaintiff claims that not only did he perform the work he was contracted to perform, this single negative review cost him an estimated $300,000 in business.
Initially, a county judge granted a preliminary injunction forcing the defendant, a retired armed forces captain, to remove certain portions of her review. However, the Virginia Supreme Court later overturned that injunction.
The trial begins at the same time that another court in Virginia ordered an online business review platform to reveal the identities of more than a half dozen anonymous users posting critical reviews of a local carpet cleaning company. The company alleges the reviewers weren’t actual customers, but rather competitors.
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.
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