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A recent Virginia court of appeals’ decision, including allegedly false reviews on Yelp!, have drawn a lot of attention to false reviews and hoteliers and restaurateur’s options for responding. Our newest post from recent Garvey Schubert Barer addition, Judy Endejan, looks at the Virginia decision and offers vendors some practical advice on managing their social media reputations. We are thrilled to welcome Judy and the extensive communications and First Amendment expertise she brings to GSB. Welcome Judy! - Greg 

A common modern headache most hoteliers and restaurateurs face is a negative review that torpedoes the room, the food, or the room service to be posted by an anonymous blogger on Yelp!, or any one of the other well established user review websites or blogs.  How should you react?

First, do not overreact.  If the negative review is far outweighed by positive reviews, most readers will give little weight to an outlier, concluding that the poster either had a fight with his or her partner or a cosmic headache.

Second, analyze the review.  If the review appears to contain false information that needs to be corrected, you have a different path than if the review, viewed overall, appears to be nothing but a statement of opinion.  In the latter case, frankly, there is little that you can do because the First Amendment protects a statement of a personal opinion about a business that they patronized.  The review must tell the reader, however, the factual assumptions upon which the opinion is based.  The First Amendment does not protect a statement of opinion that is based upon an undisclosed or false statement of facts.

If the anonymous review truly contains provably false statements, then consider carefully these options.  First, contact the website and ask to remove the false statements.  Yelp!’s terms of service, for example, allow the removal of a review for any reason or no reason and will also remove reviews that violate their content guidelines.  These guidelines require the reviewer to have first-hand consumer experience (i.e., to actually have been a customer).  Furthermore, the content guidelines require that the review be factually accurate or correct.  While these websites have no enforceable contractual relationship with your business, it should be held to its public pronouncements. Yelp! represents on its website that it will not tolerate false information or information from reviewers who were not first-hand customers.  Its terms of use advise reviewers that it may disclose information to third parties “if we have a good faith belief that such a disclosure is reasonably necessary to…enforce or apply our terms and privacy policy, or comply with legal process such as a subpoena.”  In short, your best first action would be to make an immediate effort to get the website to remove the false review to minimize damage.  Try to contact a live person (which can be a challenge) armed with facts to refute the false review that you are trying to take down. This approach will not necessarily compensate you for any lost business you might suffer as a result of a negative review or give you much emotional satisfaction, but it is preferable to taking formal legal action against the negative reviewer for defamation.

Defamation litigation is problematic from many standpoints.  First, defamation litigation might cause a “Streisand Effect” – meaning that your lawsuit against an anonymous blogger might generate far more publicity than any publicity possible from the negative review.  This could be bad for business.

Comment BoxesSecond, you will face several hurdles in a defamation action.  The first hurdle will be to discover the identity of the anonymous negative reviewer.  Yelp! defends against disclosing the identity of its users quite vociferously.  Recently it lost a case at the Court of Appeals of Virginia (Yelp!, Inc. v. Hadid Carpet Cleaning, Inc., Record No. 0116-13-4).  There, the Court applied a special Virginia procedural statute targeted at unmasking anonymous bloggers and upheld a contempt order against Yelp!, when Yelp! refused to identify seven anonymous bloggers that posted specific critical reviews of the carpet cleaning company.  The Virginia statute has a lower standard for protecting anonymous speech than those adopted in other leading cases regarding unmasking internet bloggers.  The Virginia Court did not follow these leading cases, Dendrite International, Inc. v. Doe #3, 775 A 2d 756 (N.J. Super Court App. Div. 2001) or Doe v. Cahill, 884 A. 2d 451 (Del. 2005), which impose a fairly strict standard for a defamation plaintiff to pass.  Under Dendrite and Doe, the plaintiff has to provide evidence that substantiates that the speech was tortious (i.e., defamatory) or otherwise illegal to overcome First Amendment protection of anonymous speech, which requires a compelling state interest.  The Virginia Court applied the Virginia statute, which has a lower burden, requiring only that you prove, among other things, that the review is or “may be” defamatory, or that you have a legitimate, good faith basis for “believing” that the review is defamatory.  In the Virginia case, the plaintiffs presented evidence that could prove the seven reviewers were not actual customers of the carpet cleaner.  The Court reasoned that if the reviewers weren't customers, then whatever they said must have been false, hence defamatory.

While the Virginia case may indicate some easing of the burden for getting redress against a negative Yelp! review, that case is based on a specific state statute and should not be viewed as having universal application in other parts of the country.

Even if your business could succeed in unmasking the identity of a negative reviewer, you still face the considerable burden of proving that the speech was libelous, which is subject to other constitutional burdens.  In some states, like Washington and California, anti-SLAPP statutes allow a defendant to test the strength of a plaintiff’s case for defamation by requiring the plaintiff to prove why it will win at an early stage of the litigation.  If the plaintiff can’t do that,the plaintiff has to pay attorneys’ fees and a possible penalty to the defendant.

In sum, before considering a litigation option, your business will need to think long and hard before undertaking the burdens associated with it.  In the end, the best way to deal with a negative review is to bury it among positive reviews.

Please contact me or Judy by email if you have any questions

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Greg Duff
Greg Duff founded and chairs Foster Garvey’s national Hospitality, Travel & Tourism group. His practice largely focuses on operations-oriented matters faced by hospitality industry members, including sales and marketing, distribution and e-commerce, procurement and technology. Greg also serves as counsel and legal advisor to many of the hospitality industry’s associations and trade groups, including AH&LA, HFTP and HSMAI.

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