“I was . . . left with damage to my home and work that had to be reaccomplished for thousands more than originally estimated,” Perez wrote. She alleges that Dietz “was the only one with a key” when jewelry disappeared from her home and that he trespassed on her property, prompting her to call the police, among other issues in dispute.
Dietz says that he completed the job, that he did not damage the home, that Perez never paid him and that she demanded that he perform work beyond what was part of their agreement, according to the lawsuit. Perez denies those accusations.
Dietz also says Perez’s comments about the missing jewelry and trespassing amount to false accusations that he committed crimes. County court records show that Dietz has not been charged on either accusation.
In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation. Opinions are generally protected by the First Amendment.
Lawyers say such lawsuits are on the rise because of the explosion in popularity of review sites such as Yelp. They also say that commentators are unfamiliar with what constitutes defamation and that others are lulled into a false sense of security online.
“There is a right to speak anonymously on the Internet,” said Lee Berlik, a Reston lawyer who handles Internet defamation cases. “Armed with that right, I think people feel safe when they are sitting in their pajamas at their desks at home. They feel they have the right to say whatever they want.”
But that right does not extend to defamatory speech. 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.
And some of those cases are producing astronomical awards. This year, an Anaheim, Calif., technology company won a $1.6 million judgment against a blogger who had accused the company of stealing money from business associates. And in 2006, a Florida woman won a $11.3 million judgment after a Louisiana woman called her a “crook” and a “con artist” in an Internet forum.
Lawyers say businesses suing reviewers have met with less success. In fact, many such lawsuits have backfired. Some have generated negative publicity for the plaintiffs and have been looked at skeptically by courts.
Last year, a California judge ordered a dentist to pay the legal bills of the parents of a patient he sued for defamation over a negative review one of them posted on Yelp.
Mark Goldowitz, founder of the Public Participation Project, which monitors such lawsuits, said he sees a troubling trend in review site defamation cases such as the one in Fairfax. He thinks they are a threat to vibrant new communities that have sprung up around Yelp and other sites.
“The suits can have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to share information,” Goldowitz said. “It does lead to people not posting reviews for fear of getting sued and to taking them down when threatened by a lawsuit.”
His group is pushing for a federal law that allows defendants to seek early dismissal of lawsuits that are aimed at silencing voices on public issues. Twenty-seven states, including Maryland, and the District have such “anti-SLAPP” laws, but not Virginia, according to Public Participation Project.
Perez has removed her reviews from Yelp, her attorney said, because allegedly false comments Dietz made about her in his response post on Yelp were popping up as the first listing in Google searches on her name.
Berlik, the lawyer, has a few words of advice for those who want to avoid similar lawsuits: Stick to opinion and “tell the truth, and you won’t get into trouble.”