For the avid Yelp reviewers out there, a new decision from the California Court of Appeals may make you think twice about posting an unfavorable business review.
In Wong v. Tai Jing et al., http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/H034059.PDF, a pediatric dentist sued the parents of the child she previously treated for posting a negative Yelp review accusing her of various misconduct. In her complaint, the dentist alleges that she asked Yelp to delete a negative review posted by the defendant but Yelp advised her to purchase a business account so she could manage the content of her listing. When she declined and asked again for the deletion, Yelp claimed immunity for the review and requested a court order. Third-party content providers, such as Yelp, are generally immuned from libel for users posts. Thus, the average reviewer often becomes the target of a defamation lawsuit. In this case, after her unsuccessful attempts to get Yelp to remove the user’s post, the dentist sued the parents for libel and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
According to the Wong court, to establish a defamation claim, a plaintiff must show that there was “(1) a publication that is (2) false, (3) defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and (5) has a natural tendency to injury or causes special damage.” Libel is defamation that has been reduced to writing, printing, picture, effigy or other fixed representation. In layman’s terms, a statement is subject to liability for defamation if it is false, injurious to someone’s name or reputation, not protected under the laws and is likely to cause injury or damages.
Applying this guideline while keeping in mind the defendants’ First Amendment rights, the court dissected the content of the subject Yelp review and determined that several statements made by the father were false and thus defamatory because they were not supported by the evidence offered by the dentist.
In analyzing the Yelp review at issue, there is a sense that the defendant posted the review in haste and anger without properly checking all the facts. However, this does not come as a surprise to me because the worse business reviews are usually posted by consumers who believed they were badly mistreated by the establishment and/or its staff. In any event, there is a fine line between voicing your opinion about a product or service and wrecklessly posting an untrue statement that has the potential to destroy a business’ reputation. This court decision, although is not the first published decision regarding defamation, provides business owners with ammunition to combat negative online business reviews.
Anh N. Nguyen, Esq.
Regal Law Office
21151 S. Western Ave., Suite 249
Torrance, CA 90501
**The opinion above is not intended to be legal advice nor should be treated as such**