Today, the vast majority of consumers perform online searches for information about local businesses. One of the things they look for are online reviews from other consumers about a business. This is because 85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation, according to BrightLocal’s 2017 Local Consumer Review Survey.
There is no doubt that online reviews are critical to the success of many businesses, and negative reviews can have a profound effect on business operations. So it’s not surprising that many business owners wonder if there is a legal solution to halting the damage negative online reviews have on their business.
Can — and should — you sue a consumer who has posted a negative review? The answer is, it depends.
The fact is that you can sue anybody for anything. But no smart business owner wants to start a fight he or she can’t win. When it comes to negative online reviews, you must have legal grounds for a defamation suit — meaning that the review must contain assertions of fact, not opinion, that are demonstrably false.
Under 28 U.S. Code § 4101, defamation is defined as, “forms of speech (that) are false, have caused damage to reputation or emotional distress, have presented any person in a false light, or have resulted in criticism, dishonor, or condemnation of any person.” Written defamation, including online reviews, are considered libel.
Say you operate a restaurant business. A review that states, “my food didn’t taste that good” is opinion. However, if a review stated, “they have a ‘C’ health rating” and your rating is really an “A”, the reviewer could be open to liability for defamation, as they have made a false assertion of fact. In order to prevail in a defamation suit, a business needs to prove that a review contains a false assertion of fact.
Businesses that try to preempt negative reviews of their products or services need to be aware that the Consumer Review Fairness Act makes it illegal for companies to add terms to any consumer contract — including online terms and conditions — that prohibits consumers from posting negative reviews.
The best practice for any business receiving a negative review is to respond directly to the customer and offer a remedy. Research shows that providing a prompt and polite response to a negative review helps remove most of the sting in the minds of other consumers. That said, don’t be afraid to combat a false review by consulting with an attorney experienced in this area of the law. You do have the right to defend yourself against defamation.
When you are facing any type of business dispute, you need an experienced Arizona trial attorney to obtain the best possible result. Contact Williams Mestaz, L.L.P., at (602) 256-9400 to speak with us about your case.