The First Amendment allows you to speak freely and express yourself however you wish. But in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it’s becoming apparent you should tread lightly when tossing around negative reviews of local businesses on Yelp – especially if they’re not true.
A woman was taken to trial Monday morning in Fairfax County over a $750,ooo defamation lawsuit stemming from a Yelp review in which a D.C. contractor claims she wrote falsehoods about his business in 2012, driving away potential customers.
The defendant, Jane Perez, claims that when Christopher Dietz – the contractor suing her for her allegedly libelous review – was contracted to work on her home, she returned to find her home damaged, work that she was billed for not done and jewelry missing. She took to the Internet as a form of justice, posting harsh reviews on both Yelp and Angie’s List.
In closing one of her reviews, Perez wrote “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”
This lawsuit comes at an interesting time and place for this new battlefield of First Amendment rights. Businesses are increasingly filing for lawsuits against Internet-based reviewers, claiming falseness and visible damage to their brand. In this case, Dietz claimed his construction contracting business lost $300,000 due to Perez’s reviews.
It seems that this case may stand as a precedent in Virginia once decided, likely after several appeals – after all, a Fairfax County judge ordered an injunction forcing Perez to remove part of her comments, only to have that ruling later overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court.
And whatever comes of this case will likely affect the outcome of a similar case in Alexandria, in which a carpet company won an appeal forcing Yelp to reveal the identities of six pseudonymous reviewers.
Virginia, though, is not alone in this new legal issue. In fact, judges in several other states have already decided similar lawsuits, including one in Anaheim where a tech company received $1.6 million in damages from a man who accused the firm of stealing money from one of his associates.
No matter the outcome at the end of the Fairfax trial, the case is sure to influence the way consumers interact with online review sites like Yelp. While the company hosting the reviews and profiles are not liable for any defamatory comments under the Communications Decent Act, it’s becoming apparent that reviewers themselves are not nearly as safe.