Angered by what she thought was shoddy work on her home, Fairfax resident Jane Perez did what has become the go-to form of retail vengeance in the Internet age: She logged on to Yelp and posted scathing reviews of the D.C. firm that did the job.
Perez ticked off a list of accusations, including damage to her home, an invoice for work the contractor did not perform and jewelry that disappeared. She closed one post by fuming, “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”
The contractor’s response to her one-star takedown? Fight back.
Christopher Dietz filed a $750,000 Internet defamation lawsuit against Perez last month, saying the postings on Yelp and others on Angie’s List were false and sent customers fleeing. He is also asking a Fairfax County court for a preliminary injunction to keep her from writing similar reviews. A hearing will be held Wednesday.
Lawyers say it is one of a growing number of defamation lawsuits over online reviews on sites such as Yelp, Angie’s List and TripAdvisor and over Internet postings in general. They say the freewheeling and acerbic world of Web speech is colliding with the ever-growing importance of online reputations for businesses, doctors, restaurants, even teachers.
It’s snark vs. status.
No one keeps track of how many suits are filed over online reviews, and lawyers say the numbers are still small but are getting larger. Most of the suits fail because juries and the courts have sided with free speech and the rights of the reviewers to express their opinions.
With 84 million visitors a month and 33 million reviews, Yelp especially has become a legal battleground given that the reputations of restaurants, nail salons, dry cleaners and other businesses can be made or shredded in a few keystrokes. For instance, a Chicago plastic surgeon sued after a Yelp reviewer said he gave her “Frankenstein breasts.”
Perez, a retired captain in the armed services, said she never fathomed that her Yelp review could land her in court. It has left her reeling and potentially facing thousands of dollars in legal bills to defend herself.
“I don’t want to see what happened to me happen to anyone else,” Perez said.
Nevertheless, she stands by her reviews, saying that everything she wrote was truthful about the work Dietz did on the townhouse, where she lives with her dog.
Some reviewers and free-speech advocates, including Perez, see the cases as free-speech issues: They say the lawsuits are heavy-handed attempts to stifle critical — but valuable — consumer information that has forced businesses to be held accountable.
On the other side, business owners such as Dietz say they are forced to take extreme legal measures because the Internet has made defamation that much more damaging. A single false post can live virtually forever on a site and reach millions, causing untold harm.
Lawyers say such cases are a cautionary tale for a new era: Those who feel targeted by defamation on the Web are more likely to file suit, and judges and juries are more likely to take such claims seriously than in years past, raising the legal stakes over vitriolic reviews, nasty blog comments and Facebook feuds.
“As the Internet has matured, more and more people are feeling the sting of negative posts against them, and the public and jurors are getting more educated about the impacts this speech can have,” said Aaron Morris, a lawyer who handles Internet defamation cases.
Dietz said his small seven-year-old design and contracting firm had a good reputation. Two reviews on Yelp give him the highest rating — five stars — and one praises him as showing a “high degree of professionalism.”
But that reputation was devastated by Perez’s reviews, he said. He alleges in the lawsuit that they cost him $300,000 in business. The situation has also taken a toll on him personally.
“The impact has been awful,” Dietz said. “There is no one to protect businesses when people slam their name.”
The Communications Decency Act shields sites such as Yelp from defamation suits over content posted by third parties. And Yelp, like many review sites, says it simply can’t check the veracity of millions of reviews, leaving businesses and the site’s reviewers to sort out messy factual disputes.
A 2011 Harvard study quantified just how big an effect those negative Yelp postings can have: A one-star increase among reviews of Seattle restaurants led to a 5 to 9 percent growth in revenue.
Perez hired Dietz’s company, Dietz Development, when she moved to the area and needed cosmetic work done on her newly purchased Fairfax home, according to the lawsuit. Dietz, a high school friend, was to paint, refinish floors, perform electrical and plumbing work, and do other tasks in June 2011.
But things quickly spiraled out of control, Perez wrote in her Yelp post.