In a world where fast-food chains get blamed for customers biting off too big of pieces of chicken and coffee chains get sued for for under filling their lattes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when someone gets sued for leaving a bad yelp review. Yet, somehow… it still does.
Lan Cai, a 20-year-old nursing student, was seriously injured in a car accident. Driving home from her waitressing shift late one night, she was struck by a drunk driver, ultimately leaving her with two broken bones in her lower back. With the high costs of medical bills, Cai understandably sought out legal help to prove her damages.
Cai hired the Texas law firm of Tuan A. Khuu, who she claims was extremely unprofessional. After writing about her experience with the firm on her Facebook page and via a Yelp review, Cai received cease and desist letter from Keith Nguyen, a lawyer at the Khuu firm, threatening suit if she didn’t remove her posts. Cai refused and Nguyen proceeded with his lawsuit demanding close to $200,000.
What Did the Firm Sue for?
Defamation, libel per se, defamation per se, and injunctive relief. The judge wasn’t buying it, though, and dismissed the case, ordering the Khuu firm to pay $26,831.55 in attorney’s fees. The firm’s actions backfired and they have, unsurprisingly, received even more negative attention than they had to begin with.
This isn’t the first time a case like this has been brought before a court. Earlier this year, a pet sitting business sued a Texas couple for up to 1 million for leaving a one-star review on Yelp. What did the couple complain about on the review that was so harrowing to the pet sitting company? Their fish had been overfed.
What’s to Stop Companies from Suing?
Well, it depends on where you live because there aren’t any federal protections, unless you count the First Amendment (which you should). Let’s rephrase that to there aren’t any federal protections that address these specific issues surrounding negative reviews of online.
These suits aren’t uncommon and they fall under a classic SLAPP type lawsuit. SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) , which are illegal in many jurisdictions, are intended to censor or silence critics by burdening them with the cost of legal defense in the hopes they comply with whatever it is the plaintiff wants them to do (or not do).
Sometimes you’ll also see companies trying to sue their customers/clients for leaving negative reviews because the client has signed some sort of non-disparagement clause. What’s that, you ask? Basically, it’s a clause in a contract (usually in the fine print) that prohibits the signor from taking any action that might negatively impact the business.
California has a law that’s been notoriously nicknamed the “Yelp Bill” because it renders these types of clauses null and void. Others, like Texas, have laws that allow SLAPP lawsuits to be thrown out at early stages of litigation. Remember the Texas couple with the fish? They signed a non-disparagement clause. Luckily for the couple, the case was dismissed, but I doubt it will be the last of its kind unless some kind of federal legislation is passed.
Negative Reviews May Prevail Depending On California Supreme Court Decision
The California Supreme Court is set to hear an appeal brought by Yelp involving a similar case similar to Cai’s. In that case, a lower court ordered Yelp to remove a negative review off their website because a former client of a law firm left statements on the popular website that were found to be legally defamatory.
Yelp argues a favorable outcome for the law firm would open up the flood gates for businesses to force the company to remove critical reviews and, thus, infringing on free speech rights. The law firm, on the other hand, argues their case is unique in that they’re only asking the company to remove the review that contained defamatory statements.
In theory, yes, defamatory statements made on the review site pose a different set of problems, but even still, forcing Yelp to remove the review will open up a can of worms.
If not, Hopefully Congress to the Rescue
How many of you have ever left a Yelp review? How many of you have ever relied on one of those Yelp reviews when choosing a company to give business to? Even something as simple as deciding what restaurant to go for dinner?
With big companies like Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yelp advocating for better consumer protection, Congress has started to listen. Currently, Congress is trying to pass legislation through the House that would ensure customers are protected from any legal repercussions when leaving negative reviews online.
Last year, a similar bill was passed through the Senate and, although the two bills need to be merged before they can be officially signed into law by the president, both bills accomplish the same thing. Business contracts for goods or services will be restricted from using non-disparagement clauses, or anything like it, that would prohibit negative reviews.