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When Is It Ok To Sue For A Bad Online Review?

As an author, when I read a bad review online, it stings. As I’m sure for most businesses, criticism about something you put your heart into has to sting. But when does it go to far?

There have been many examples of people getting sued for bad reviews on sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and others. Then there are the ridiculous ones (Thanks Stephanie).

There is a fine line between protecting your product and creating the Streisand effect, bringing attention to something most people didn’t even know about.

Recently, a McMaster University Librarian was sued by Edwin Mellen Press for $3,000,000 for his scathing review of their books and really, their entire business.

Initially I sided with the reviewer, thinking that the publisher was over-reacting, then I read the actual court filings and saw how badly he beat them down.

Everything from the quality of the book materials, to the company themselves. A lot of blogs are saying this is an attack on academic freedom, etc. I’m not so sure.

I want to know what you think. Was the publisher right in doing this? Have you ever wanted to sue someone for libel online or been threatened with it?

Friends of mine have been on the receiving end, and it’s not pretty. (see his comment below)

My non-legal advice? When giving a review, stick to the facts, versus smearing the company. I’m not the best example of that, but take the higher road 🙂

Will we get to the point where people are afraid to leave a restaurant review because of the lawsuit potential? Where is the line between transparency and libel?

I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

And as always, please sign-up for future blog post updates below. I only post when I think you need to read something, not a “forced schedule”. It’s free, unless you plan on suing me. Then it costs $3,000,000 to subscribe.

  • Chris Moody

    Thanks for sharing Scott! Personally, I no longer write bad reviews. I’ve actually removed any that could be a source of litigation. I’ll choose to be risk averse for now. Even though many of the online lawsuits are bogus and easily dismissed – you have to pay for a lawyer to help make that happen. There is no easy button to remove yourself from being named (or served) in a lawsuit.

  • Stephanie

    I don’t review a lot of things, but I usually only take the time to review things I like. Speaking of restaurant reviews, have you heard about what happened to a woman in Ottawa when she gave a restaurant a bad review? Scary stuff! http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/11/16/marisol-simoes-jailed_n_2146205.html

    • That one was crazy. I added it above. Thanks Stephanie!

  • I read the bad review. It didn’t look like defamation to me. On the contrary, it’s an expert’s thoughtful opinion. Right or wrong, it’s protected speech, and ought to be.

  • Tim Baker

    Great post Scott. There’s a big difference between commenting negatively about a book to, say, a friend…and reviewing a book publicly. Always stick to the facts.

    Can I get a discount on the $3,000,000 subscription fee since I’ve purchased your 2 books? Which were absolutely fantastic, by the way! (that’s my review)

  • The MN State Supreme Court just took this on and sided with a poster over his calling a doctor a “tool” on an review site. http://www.startribune.com/local/189028521.html

  • As long as reviews are kept as your opinion I think it should be fine. When you start making false accusations and spread misinformation, that is when you will start to get into trouble.

  • As a business owner myself I love reviews it gives me a chance to turn bad into awesome but when a reviewer crosses the line I make first contact and attempt to resolve and then depending on the outcome I usually then contact my lawyer and a cease and desist letter or phone call usually does the trick.

    I have only had to do that once in the past but the negative remarks/comments posted on Facebook were removed within five minutes of the lawyers phone call. Reviewers can cross the line of free speech vs. libel very easily. “the waitress was rude” vs. “the stupid waitress was a bi**h and spit in my food” The latter crosses the line. So what does one do?

    I was sued for libel/slander because of what I reported to Unemployment on one employee. We lost and had to pay. The employee made up all kinds of lies after getting a copy of our response to her claim, even accusing my 60+ year old father of sexual harassment which never happened even with video take evidence we lost.

    The world of lawsuits is a no win for everyone. All we business owners can do is try to correct and turn a bad situation into something productive/positive and learn from mistakes and hope that you can move forward…

    Love your posts Scott! Keep up the good work we love it!

    • Holly Pedit

      And this is the very reason for keeping current on what people are saying about you. If I read a dozen reviews about a venue and cross check reviews across sites (say when you look for a hotel), I can see the abnormal post and treat it with a certain amount of credibility compared to what every one else wrote.

      The question is “in what context does the “normal” viewer take the comment?

  • I went to school with the woman in Ottawa who endured an insane amount of harassment because of a restaurant review she wrote. I’m not sure I could have survived the stress of it. Her review was fair and objective and she got treated terribly. So, yeah, the whole thing scares the crap out of me now.

  • ctsmithiii

    Never. The only one that wins when someone sues someone else is the lawyers.

    Figure out a way to work it out. Have a civil dialogue and resolve the issue.

  • Tracy

    My lawyer has told me that as long as what I say is truthful it cannot be considered libel. 🙂

    • I would get a second opinion on that, I hope your lawyer is right

  • I don’t know how different the laws are in the US and Canada. In the US you can get in trouble for reporting something that isn’t public knowledge that can harm a business’ reputation, even if it’s true. So, for example, if someone wrote in a review, “This restaurant is bad because it’s so broke the management couldn’t pay the employees this week,” the writer could be in trouble, even if it’s true. You could NOT get into trouble for saying, “This restaurant is bad because there aren’t enough waiters,” because anybody can walk in the door and see the number of waiters.

    • Robert Wall

      Angelique, my understanding of the law is that unless that information is something you’re contractually obligated not to reveal (CFOs, for example, shouldn’t be leaking damaging financial data), the fact that something is true is almost always complete defense.

      Of course I’m not a lawyer, and you shouldn’t be getting your legal advice in Scott’s comment section anyway. 🙂 But truth goes a long way in court.

  • Brian

    Interesting. This is big, and will be getting bigger. I have a couple of vacation rentals on VRBO’s website. Owners used to be able to opt out of reviews (all reviews, + or -). VRBO changed the policy and now owners must allow reviews. This has led to guests using a possible negative review as leverage for refunds, return of sec deposits, etc. For a small businessperson, a negative review on a property with only a couple of reviews can be devistating. I actually received a negative review 6 months after a guest departed, with no know issues during the stay. I successfully blocked it from being published by attacking the factual inaccuracies in the review.

    Likewise, sites like Yelp are trying to extort smaller business by “filtering” legitimate reviews. We all (well, most of us) know reviews can be gamed and should be read with a skeptics filter. I recently added my business to Yelp, and started having my customers submit reviews. I had 2 leads the first week from my positive reviews. Then, Yelp starts calling me to advertise. And, my reviews are all of a sudden “filtered”. Yelp claims this is to keep us from submitting false reviews, but they give no way for a legitimate reviewer to confirm it was a legitimate review- they just hide it. I call BS on Yelp- sites like that have a lot if influence upon public opinion, and need to be transparent. Very few know about the filtered reviews.

    • Holly Pedit

      Well Said. Scary.

  • Here in the US (I’m not sure about Canadian laws, but I presume they are similar), the best defense against libel and slander suits is the truth. If someone speaks or writes a completely factual account, then that’s what free speech is all about. However, the challenge appears to come when the question of what language constitutes a form of puffery in a reviewer’s online critique and what will be an acceptable description of the truth.

    As one of your links above reported, a plastic surgeon sued a woman for saying he gave her “Frankenstein breasts.” I don’t know if he won, but was she using her own language to say what factually happened: the results of her plastic surgery were not what she anticipated?

    The online world can be a scary place. I hope to still be able to see rational, factual criticisms because that helps other buyers beware.

  • Casa di Amore Las Vegas

    Ahhhh, the dreaded bad review. Being a restaurant located in a destination city, we get a lot of reviews. Sometimes the reviewer confuses us with a place of a similar name and that’s frustrating, but probably not punitive in nature. We take reviews seriously, but have really only taken offense once, because the review was overly racist. We happily say ” Welcome to a restaurant loved by thousands and hated by one guy on Yelp!”

    • Hey!!! I just ate at your place! SO GOOD! Music was amazing, food was amazing. Seriously. Consider this a review 🙂 Love Vegas.

      • This is hilarious! 🙂

      • Casa di Amore Las Vegas

        I’m so happy to hear that!

    • Holly Pedit

      One of my clients has the same issue. But it is kind of their own fault because they (as biz partners) took on another venue – directly across the street.

      So reviews and tweets for one get posted to the wrong one all the time.

      Hopefully my work for them will create a disconnect and make it obvious to the reviewer that they are not reviewing the restaurant they reviewed. (and my big fear is that it will blow up because the Other” place serves alcohol.)

      • Casa di Amore Las Vegas

        So is one place a restaurant and the other a bar/restaurant?

  • Scott, as you know, I review a lot of books, and there have been times (certainly not on yours, as I’m a big fan) when I’ve been feeling a bit “sheepish” when getting ready to hit POST because I’ve been somewhat “unkind” about a book.

    I think one once or twice I’ve “slept on it” and toned down a review, but there have been cases where I had REALLY wished I had more positive things to say about a book, but just couldn’t come up with anything.

    This is especially the case where I actually know the author, or the author had made a special effort for an interview or something (one Big Name Author broke his long-standing “no e-mail interviews” rule for me, for a book that I had really not connected with at all … I felt very bad about that, but wasn’t going to lie about my reaction to the book). I spent a year avoiding one author at social media events locally after having been the ONLY voice saying her book was less than wonderful (heck, I was shocked at how negatively I reacted to it), and have had “strained” email communications with a couple of others who felt that I’d been unfair in characterizing the intent of their writing.

    I’ve never been particularly worried about being sued (perhaps I’m naive in that), because my reviews are very “conversational” and from a standpoint of how I interfaced with the book rather than any particular pontifications. I certainly never get into saying authors and/or their publishers eat kittens and use baby seals as toilet paper (or less hyperbolic accusations), but I regularly speak my mind when I think the editorial function has been abandoned, when design has not served the book, when the author is blinded by their niche, etc., etc., etc. … and I have from time to time wondered (in print) HOW a particular book managed to get published at all.

    Of course, I’m coming to this from both sides of the fence, having previously been a Publisher, and with my name on the cover of a number of minor works … I can understand how an author/publisher could have the reaction of feeling like they are being “ruined” by a particular review, and wanting revenge … but if there isn’t free discussion out there, it’s a short slide to the point where nothing of interest gets written or published!

    – B.T.

    • Always a good idea to sleep on it. Just don’t press send/post by accident.

    • Holly Pedit

      Well put and admirable thanks.Having been a reviewer of theater in the past, there was a “formula I followed. (template nowadays).

      Places like Angie’s List require not only a certain form but they have editors read it before posting. I once got a response that said “Hey. You are not allowed to say the name of the competitor in a negative light, if at all.”

  • Besides that ridiculous ones, which would be filled under Cyber Bullying in the Canadian legal system, any review you post to a review website should be considered freedom of speech. Of course the information must be truthful; and that is where the problem would stem; what is the truth in someones opinion? What are the facts?

    I also believe this comes down to customer service and maintaining a proper face to the public for business/organization/brand in the review. I have seen some negative reviews, with pretty awesome replies from the business itself, and in fact, it helped me form a positive opinion about the business.

    • Or, Scott if I may, “When shit hits the fan, it’s time to be awesome” – Scott Stratten

  • This is a non-legal answer, from a not-a-lawyer with an opinion. For me (the non-lawyer) it comes down to intent and transparency. If the review’s intent is to provide the community with an authentic opinion, then I don’t feel that’s slanderous. If the author has some kind of ax to grind and the intent is reputation damage and the author hasn’t disclosed his/her interest, then that’s not only bad form, its slanderous.

    Quality is a matter of opinion. Pure and simple. Some people have higher expectations. Truth is hard to parse from opinion.

    The language in this case is pretty aggressive, and it does make me wonder about the author’s intent. On the other hand, couldn’t the publisher have just responded to the blog post with the same points it makes in its case and moved on? What’s really going on here? This seems like a very emotional reaction by both parties.

    This is why large review sites hold so much value (IMO), you can more easily remove the outliers who think every experience should be the greatest, most fantastic one of their lives. The same is also true for those who think every experience is phenomenal.

  • I left a review of sorts regarding the recent move of a company in my previous hometown and their celebration of a recent funding achievement. In such, I questioned why we celebrate stuff like investment instead of profit, sales, or happy customers.

    A guy with a vested interest in that company saw what I wrote, copied it down, sent it to my biggest client, accused me of libel and requested that I shut up. I wasn’t dropped, but wtf, man?

  • I once got a really scathing review on a blog article. I was hurt. But I was too busy to reply. Within a couple of days, dozens of people came to my defense and stood up for me. I learned the best reaction is no reaction sometimes.

  • This is ridiculous. The guy feels that they are overpriced and poor quality in general. Why is this libel? He’s not accusing anyone of doing anything immoral or illegal – he’s just complaining that their quality sucks (which is highly subjective).

  • I think I’ve heard a comment along the lines of “You are more likely to write a review about a negative experience than a positive one” which is kind of sad. I like to spread the word about businesses if my experience is good or bad and have written plenty of blogs about them (or Yelp reviews!)

    I co-own a restaurant in Montreal and one of the partners is obsessed with less than 4 star reviews. He spends sooooooo much time harping about it that it can drive you batty. My opinion is this: Focus on the 10 positive reviews and screw the one bad review. The reviewer probably had a bad night and took it out on everyone and everything.

    I still go out to eat and I do give honest reviews. From the service, the food, the decor, the ambiance etc. I would rather read ALL about the place instead of just a few aspects. (I’ve also been invited back to two places that I thought were less than stellar because the owner wanted to convince me otherwise!)

    If the materials of the book were crap, the content, everything..well..heck,.its that person’s opinion. Suing them for an opinion is childish.

    I’ve also been “dis-owned” by family for my blog posts. 🙂

  • I got a cease and desist letter for using a common phrase in a post’s headline that is in common usage but had been trademarked as a business name. This seems outrageous to me. It makes me very wary about legality. I am afraid that it is the one who can pay lawyers the most who will win and mostly people don’t have the money to bother.

  • Tommy Landry

    I’ve left both positive (glowing actually) and negative reviews. But never included anything that didn’t happen, that was exaggerated, or any outright lies. That sort of stuff is not too smart, and also almost certain to get you into trouble. Especially for a negative one.

    It would be cool if review systems allowed more opportunity to address negative reviews and make it right, without the risk of it permanently following you. Mistakes happen, and most of us will do right by our customers if things go wrong.

  • Anne

    What’s most interesting to me about that court document is that there are a number of people who related direct dealings with the publisher and were pretty harsh. Why aren’t those people named in the suit? In my opinion, some of them were more harsh than the original author.

  • Holly Pedit

    Thanks Scott.
    Great post. I have a lot of clients that worry about the same thing – “What will one bad review do to my rep?” The other questions is always “umm like when do these reviews drop off the chart.” It isn’t like a traffic ticket- they don’t.

    I tell them the key is a quick response, a public response with explanation of the circumstances, and reassurance (or if it is off the chart recompense in private).

    I encourage them to make actual contact with the person for active discussion because there is usually a “hard limit” that was pushed with the reviewer.

    Find out what it is at the heart of the matter. Like someone else said, maybe the just woke up on the wrong side of the
    bed.

    If you do it publicly in conjunction with the umm, post, it is more than likely going to create a “reviewer bias” versus a bias on the company.

    If you do it publicly in conjunction with the umm, post, it is more than likely going to create a “reviewer bias” versus a bias on the company.

  • My own (non-lawyer) thoughts on this is that it all boils down to intent and transparency.
    If the author has some undisclosed axe to grind and the intent is to disrupt the reputation, then that’s not only poor practice, it might be slanderous. If the author is simply expressing an honest opinion that he thinks his community needs to understand, not slanderous.
    But reading through the claim, I did wonder what was really going on here? Both parties seem pretty emotional. I also wondered why the publisher went to legal on this, while their responses in the claim seem reasonable, couldn’t some of that be done via a blog post? I feel like we’ve only got part of the story here.

  • MickeyMickster

    I think that you nailed Scott, stick to the facts and take
    your emotions out of it.

  • Hanpmcleod

    While I can appreciate that a company does not want to see bad reviews, and occasionally the review is just a rant of a bored, lonely individual. However, the ability to speak out online has created an opportunity for consumers that they never had before. I am 26 years old, and being young used to be a disadvantage when dealing with customer service issues, but now with the use of technology- everyone is a potential bad online reviewer.

    An example I can think of is dealing through a hotel for my boyfriend’s birthday years ago. I booked hotel rooms with two queen beds, one couple per bed. When we actually arrived at the hotel, they said we had to pay extra for the extra bed…we agreed to these terms. Then they told us we have to pay for rooms for each couple, resulting in the purchase of 4 extra rooms at the inflated cost of last minute booking. My boyfriend paid the extra costs (they kept the charge for extra beds AND extra rooms…completely unnecessary!), against my pleas to let me handle it.

    I stayed quiet against my will then, but later took it upon myself to email their customer service department, only to find I was brushed off numerous times. In the end I let them know that my intention was to use social media to explain my situation and the poor treatment of myself and my friends, in what was my opinion, a case of ageism, unless they returned the money for either the bed or the extra room charges. In the end the company returned both the money for the bed and the rooms on my boyfriend’s credit card. I learned that day that social media has empowered the consumer!

  • Selena Horner

    Sadly, in the physical therapy world, almost 5 years ago a handful of physical therapists (discussing the lack of research supporting the validity, reliability and effectiveness of Myofascial Release via a blog post and a forum) were slapped with the threat of a lawsuit. John F. Barnes perceived the discussion as a threat and hired an attorney. The physical therapists were exactly correct in their discussion. The lack of transparency in the medical world and the lack of being able to truly discuss and review without the fear of a libel suit is sad. You won’t find anything online now – the physical therapists adhered to the cease and desist demand. It costs money to fight.

  • Hmmm… I read over the actual court filings document and he does lay into them pretty hard but I don’t see anything particularly unreasonable. I wouldn’t see this as libel or anything. If anything. I think his comments make EMP look better. He sounds really cranky and annoying and I ended up sympathizing with EMP. I don’t really see any reason to sue him.

  • Heike Yates

    That is always tricky. We have freedom of speech and everybody has their own 5-cents to say about everything but then we welcome the positive remarks – right. Take the good with the bad!?!? Or provide outstanding service.

  • I just wanted to comment specifically on concept of “academic freedom” because it is frequently misunderstood (esp by the people using it to defend this case) as a shield for everything under the sun.

    To quote the Cdn Assc of University Teachers, AF is ” the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. It includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance.” The reprisal from whom AF serves as protection is the university; academic professionals can teach in a style they decide and research what they choose without fear of dismissal.

    This is not protection from the entire world, it’s job protection against external pressures on research.

    Once you start sharing your opinions, they are subject to public scrutiny. Attack a publisher in your public blog? They might just react.

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  • Mike Milord

    I think reviews are very important for businesses ‘Good or bad’. it helps the business. If you have some bad review, well you know there is something wrong that you need to correct. It better to be aware of it and be given a chance to put things right than the opposite. I know it is not a pleasant to see, but if you look at it in the bright side, well it is a motivational factor. We at zaawi, we encourage people and businesses to look to the positive of every type of review: https://zaawi.co.uk/

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  • Michael Chiong

    I don’t think it’s ever ok to sue about a bad review. It’s freedom of speech and press and should be protected however I would not write a bad review just because.. something had to be really really bad to get a bad review from me. Bad reviews can also be highly opinionated and you just trust your own instincts when purchasing a product or service which might suitable for you but not for somebody else.

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