Can Lawsuits Heal Bad Online Reviews?

Yelp.com is no stranger to lawsuits involving libel, defamation, and privacy laws. Since Yelp is one of the best rating sites, a body of case law has started to form around jobs that have happened on the site by users, and how to handle negative reviews online.

Notice the”case law” is the legal concept that as judges make decisions, the conclusions could be looked to for mentioning in future cases as precedent as to how courts should interpret laws. The higher the court, the more weight is given to the decision in a specific case.

By means of example, if a little claims court makes a decision, little, if any, weight is given to the outcome from the situation and lawyers do not cite the case as precedent regarding why a court should decide a case being heard in a specific way. But when the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a similar scenario previously, a lawyer would cite the ruling if law in a current case claiming that the court hearing the case necessary to apply the law the way the Supreme Court had ruled in a previous case.

Yelp Reviews Affect Revenue

Why is Yelp so often an inherent participant of a lawsuit? According to a research published in 2011 by Harvard Business School, a 1 star increase at a Yelp rating can increase a business’s earnings by 5-9 percent. By 2011, Yelp already had 20 million testimonials. In agreement with Yelp, there were more than 71 million reviews from the fourth quarter of 2014. Reviews on Yelp matter.

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It is important to note, while the subject of the manual is Yelp, multiple diverse websites are involved in lawsuits too. By means of example, TripAdvisor has experienced controversies, such as bribery, hotels fining guests for poor reviews, and defamation claims. Angie’s List has had claims of manipulating testimonials. Google AdWords has become the subject of instances involving trademark infringement claims. No review site, in other words, is immune from being a participant in a litigation.

Court Decisions Involving Negative Reviews

Many small business owners have attempted to use the court system to eliminate negative Yelp reviews. Following are a few of the instances.

  • Dietz vs. Perez. Perez used a builder (Dietz) in Virginia to provide construction services at her dwelling. After dissatisfaction with Dietz’s work, Perez posted a review on Yelp regarding the services. The review said that the work was substandard and that jewelry was removed from her property. Dietz sued Perez saying the reviews were defamatory and cost his company significant quantities. The court determined that both sides had defamed each other and awarded no damages to either side.
  • Lee vs. Makhnevich. Lee went to see Dr. Makhnevich in New York for dental work. Lee signed an agreement that Makhnevich owned the copyright on any testimonials that Lee placed online about the dentist or her organization. Normally, a company has difficulty obtaining a review removed by a review site due to protections afforded public websites. However, copyright claims are taken very seriously by review sites.

Because of this, Makhnevich was more easily able to possess”copyrighted” materials removed from review sites than claiming defamation or libel. After receiving notice that Makhnevich intended to bring a copyright infringement claim against Lee for a review on Yelp, Lee sued Makhnevich to void the assignment of copyright. In a decision this February, the U. S. District Court for the District of South New York decided that the contract signed by Lee was contrary to public policy, without consideration, and against New York law and voided the contract.

  • Wong v. Ling. Tai Jing and Jia Ma took their child to see Dr. Wong (also a dentist, for example Dr. Makhnevich) and believed he received substandard care. They wrote a negative review of Dr. Wong on Yelp’s site and were served with a court case shortly afterwards, alleging libel for the review and resulting emotional distress by Dr. Wong. The court dismissed the claims of emotional distress, also given Jing and Ma attorney fees under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute, which protects certain free speech such as the inspection against the dentist in this example.
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How to Deal with Bad Reviews?

When advising business owners and reviewers how to control review sites, I rarely take the approach that the courts should be involved. As can be seen in the cases listed above, lawsuits rarely generate a judgment which helps a small business. Even if a judgment is reached in which the provider is correct, the situation may cause a public relations nightmare and result in loss of customers. If a business will sue 1 client, it is usually an indication that it is going to sue you too.

This is not to say that the legal system shouldn’t be used. By means of example, if a former employee or spouse is the one writing the negative review, then the courts may be the most appropriate process to control the circumstance. If physical dangers are involved by either party, the court system likely is needed. However, each situation is unique and has to be valued on a case-by-case base.

So, how should a business approach bad reviews? Though a business may have legal grounds to sue, it is typically better to fight the bad reviews on a marketing as opposed to legal degree. Responding to all terrible reviews openly on the review website can help the company appear to the public to be responsive.

The company, if at all possible, should talk to the negative reviewer and inquire how to fix the circumstance. After the situation is remedied, a polite request to remove the review could be allowed. If removal of this review isn’t available, if the situation was repaired, the negative reviewer may be prepared to write a new, more positive, review. Being professional and proactive, a firm can help ensure it’s not the name recorded in case law used in future situations!

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