Ever been ticked off enough by a company or local business to write a scathing review? (Who hasn’t?) Well, you might want to cool off before you hit that submit button. The line between sharing an experience and engaging in defamation is a fuzzy one, and Jane Perez just ran smack dab into it. When she told the Interwebs exactly how she felt about her dealings with her contractor, the company was not amused, and now she has been sued for three quarters of a million dollars in damages.
Perez hit Yelp and Angie’s List to outline her experience with Dietz Development, which she says trespassed on her property, damaged her home and even stole her jewelry. Then the Virginia native urged people not to “put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.” In response, Dietz filed a $750,000 lawsuit against Perez, alleging that she smeared its reputation and cost it at least $300,000 worth of business.
But the details of this particular situation aren’t as striking as the context of the legal case. This is just the latest in what can only be called a trend: Companies, sick and tired of seeing their businesses slammed online, are using the courts to strike back at users posting negative — and, they say, libelous — reviews.
Welcome to the era of Internet Defamation. Everyone, from bloggers to everyday review-writing users, can become targets over what they post online. Judgments of $1.6 million to even $11.3 million have been awarded to both businesses and individuals who felt they were under attack by negative reviews. Interestingly, the sites themselves aren’t at risk, thanks to the Communications Decency Act, which protects sites like Yelp from defamation suits over user content. That means the user is the only one in the hot seat when a lawsuit gets filed. That’s even true when the post comes from an anonymous account. SaysThe Washington Post
, “Lawyers across the country are more aggressively using a combination of legal maneuvers and computer forensics to help uncover the identities of anonymous commentators and sue them.”
In Perez’s case, the big question is whether she was out of line, carelessly defaming the company in her quest to vent about the experience, or if she within her right to share her story and exercise her right to free speech. In this particular situation, it’s tough to say. Perez and Dietz were already in the thick of another legal fight when her reviews went live, over previous unpaid invoices that she says were for work that was never performed, and that makes it seem like she could have been on a vendetta. Whether that played into the court’s decision or not isn’t clear, but ultimately the judge sided with Dietz. The judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the contractor, and Perez was ordered to edit the review and remove the mention of stolen jewelry.
So far, it has been very difficult to prove Internet Defamation cases, but that hasn’t stopped businesses from trying. And with every judgment awarded, more scrutiny is warranted. After all, part of the joy — and the horror — of online life is that people feel free to express themselves. The very nature of the Internet would change drastically if individuals suddenly stopped sharing their experiences for fear of legal action, no?
Where do you stand? Do you believe people have the right to express themselves as they see fit online, or should they be held accountable for libelous statements or accusations? Weigh in.
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