Ruling May Lead To Yelp Recouping Legal Fees From Dentist Who Sued The Site

by , Nov 10, 2010, 7:22 PM
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Handing a victory to review site Yelp, a California court ruled that a pediatric dentist's lawsuit over a bad review should have been thrown out under a state law aimed at protecting people's right to discuss matters of public interest.

In a decision released Wednesday, an appellate court in Santa Clara ruled that Yelp was entitled to the protections of the state's anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute for hosting the review, allegedly posted by the father of a 6-year-old patient of Yvonne Wong. That statue provides that defendants who are sued based on statements about matters of public interest are, in some circumstances, entitled to recover their legal fees.

The case dates back to January of 2009, when Wong sued Yelp as well as Tai Jing, and his wife, Jia Ma, about a bad review on the site. Wong alleged that the couple wrote that their young son became lightheaded from laughing gas administered by Wong, and that he received a filling containing mercury from the dentist.

Wong said those statements libeled her and caused her emotional distress, arguing that the post implied that she hadn't informed Tai Jing and his wife ahead of time that the filling would contain mercury.

The California appellate court ruled that Yelp was entitled to dismissal under the state's anti-SLAPP law because the pan was "part of a public discussion and dissemination of information on issues of public interest," given that the post concerned the controversy surrounding mercury in dental fillings.

Armed with that ruling, Yelp will now ask a trial judge to order Wong to pay the site's legal bills under the anti-SLAPP law, says Yelp's lawyer, Paul Clifford of the California Anti-SLAPP Project.

Yelp also likely was entitled to dismissal under the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that sites are not legally responsible for defamation by users. But that law, unlike California's anti-SLAPP statute, does not also provide that defendants can obtain attorneys' fees.

In fact, last year Wong withdrew her lawsuit against Yelp, but the company nonetheless argued that the case should have been dismissed under the state's anti-SLAPP law, which would have entitled it to attorneys' fees. A trial judge never addressed Yelp's argument on that point, prompting the company's appeal.

As for Jing and Ma, last year the trial judge denied their motion to dismiss the case, ruling that Wong had shown she was likely to succeed on the merits.

They both appealed, with varying success. The appellate court dismissed Wong's allegations against Ma, ruling that Wong had not presented any evidence showing that Ma authored the post. But the court kept alive the defamation claim against Jing, stating that his alleged post contained the libelous implication that Wong "failed to warn or advise" the family about the mercury filling.

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