Legal Remedies to False On-Line Attacks by Customers or Clients

Your customers are talking about you – and the whole world is listening:

When unhappy customers post false online attacks, your reputation – and business – can suffer.

John T. Steffen

“Total rip-off!”

“Terrible customer relations.”

“Completely botched it and charged me twice as much as quoted.”

When unhappy customers post these types of comments (or worse) about your business on-line, your reputation – and business – can suffer. For most businesses, especially small companies, reputation is critical. The Internet is the new Yellow Pages of the modern world. People flock to the Internet to look-up businesses, including customer reviews. It’s difficult to manage your reputation on-line when everybody is a critic. Websites dedicated as a platform to allow customers to publish their gripes and complaints are proliferating on the Internet. These companies take anonymous complaints without verifying its truth and post them on the Internet. Many feel that these companies are created in order to blackmail companies – not to help consumers. Perhaps you have people posing as customers who are actually disgruntled ex-employees, company competitors, etc. Perhaps you have disgruntled customers who completely misrepresent the facts and publicize information that is completely false. What legal remedies do you have when complaints are posted to the Internet that degrade, slander and humiliate people and companies?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy resolution.

Pursuing an action against a website that hosts these negative comments has proven difficult. Most courts have found that these websites are immune to suit under the Communications Decency Act (CDA), when negative, false or defamatory information was posted by a third party. For example, in Black v. Google, Inc., the Ninth Circuit held that Google was not liable for an anonymous negative review posted on Google’s websites. Several courts have also denied requests for injunction to remove negative reviews, holding that the claims are barred under the CDA, for example, Reit v. Yelp!, Inc. a New York court held that Yelp.com did not have to remove negative reviews about a dentist’s office that caused his business to drop by half.

However, some courts have found that the CDA doesn’t protect a website when a person sues only for injunctive relief, and not for damages. (For example, Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of Loudoun County Library, and Doe v. Franco Productions.)

When an online review crosses the line from negative to libelous, courts are more receptive to plaintiffs. In Eppley v. Iacovelli, a plastic surgeon sued a former patient who created websites, posted false reviews, made false videos on-line, and even threatened to commit suicide and publicize it to destroy Dr. Eppley’s career. The court granted an injunction requiring Iacovelli to remove all defamatory comments, videos, and websites from the Internet, and prevented her from making any similar statements in the future. Another court issued an injunction in Townson v. Liming, where the defendant admitted to creating false reviews online. Courts in other cases have allowed business to sue based on false, defamatory statements; Lynch v. Christie involved a chiropractor who was falsely accused of sexual assault by a former patient on Facebook; the Court allowed Dr. Lynch to pursue his claim, and denied Christie’s motion to dismiss the case.

Ultimately, a business affected by a defamatory online review faces an uphill battle. Because websites are almost entirely immune from suit, the appropriate course of action is to pursue the negative reviewer directly. Plaintiffs may be successful in obtaining an injunction ordering the reviewer to remove the negative or false review as discussed above, and courts (for example, Dietz Development LLC v. Perez) have also held that monetary damages are an appropriate remedy for a business affected by false and defamatory online reviews.

About the Firm

Founded in 1996 by Mark A. Hutchison and John T. Steffen, Hutchison & Steffen is a proven, AV-rated, law firm built to serve business owners. Now one of Nevada’s largest law firms, it has built its reputation on outstanding results for its clients. Jury verdicts and results obtained by the Firm have been reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and other publications. The Firm employs top legal talent combined with hard work to ensure that clients’ legal needs and expectations are met. For more information about the Firm, please visit www.hutchlegal.com or call (702) 385-2500.

Hutchison Steffen, www.hutchlegal.com