Are you eager to review that new business a scathing review? Doing so could land you in hot water. As the internet grows, businesses are increasingly finding their reputations affected by online review sites. As one Virginia woman recently found out, businesses may retaliate against their unhappy customers. If you are not careful what you write, what you say can get you sued for defamation.
Defamation is divided into two separate torts: slander and libel. The distinguishing factor between the two is permanence; slander is generally in a more transitive medium such as speech while libel is in a more permanent medium such as print. A defamatory online review is libel. Slander or libel are otherwise similar; the defendant has allegedly made a defamatory statement and the plaintiff was injured by that statement. A defamatory statement is one that either diminishes the plaintiff’s reputation or encourages others not to do business with him or her.
A negative online review is usually aimed at getting other customers not to do business with that business. In Virginia, a dissatisfied customer wrote about her experience with a contractor. Among other things, she alleged poor work performance, overbilling, and possible theft. The contractor subsequently filed a lawsuit against her. The court ordered the woman to rephrase the review without ruling that the statements contained within the review were defamatory. Fortunately for the reviewing woman, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the decision on procedural grounds and the ground that the plaintiff could have sought monetary damages instead of injunctive relief.
Defending Against a Defamation Lawsuit
This does not mean that businesses have free reign to provide poor service and silence any dissent by threatening legal action. By permitting lawsuits to proceed, courts do not intend to stifle free speech. Defendants in a defamation suit for an online review have a very important defense: truth. In the United States, truth is an absolute defense to a lawsuit for defamation. If the defendant can prove that her statements in the review were entirely truthful, the plaintiff cannot recover damages no matter how harmful the statements were to the plaintiff.
As indicated by the recent Virginia decision, courts are reluctant to order defendants to change wording, refuse to comment further, or issue a retraction. Such an injunction can violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution if it is issued on improper grounds. As a result, courts usually prefer to award compensatory damages for tortious acts. Compensatory damages for defamation include lost revenue created by the harmful statement. In the Virginia case, the contractor demanded compensation for lost income and mental suffering.
Defamation lawsuits can be difficult for both plaintiffs and defendants. Quantifying lost revenue is challenging for the business owner and proving truth is difficult for the reviewer. Some disreputable business owners will threaten litigation or file frivolous claims in an effort to get a truthful review retracted. Anyone who has been unjustly defamed or who is being threatened by a business for an online review should consult an internet defamation lawyer as soon as possible.
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Derek is an active law and internet blogger. The article above is for anyone looking for an internet defamation lawyer.