Yelp Reviews Spawn At Least Five Lawsuits
As it turns out, that wasn't the only Yelp-review case to hit the courts. In the last two years, at least five lawsuits--and possibly more--have been filed against Yelp reviewers. In California alone, in addition to the chiropractor's case, two dentists have sued reviewers and a spa owner sued an ex-employee. A fifth case was filed, but does not appear to have ever gone forward.
Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppleman said that the vast majority of businesses that are written about don't resort to litigation. "Whenever you have a dialogue and you have people expressing their opinions, there's always a possibility that a business or an individual could get very upset and want to file a lawsuit," he said. "We have north of 4.5 million reviews and a very, very tiny number of legal inquiries, or cases, have come in."
He also said the site tells reviewers that they have to be factually honest. People can't libel others by writing opinions, but can defame them by stating untrue facts.
Yelp is not notified about all cases, and lawsuits brought in state courts are not always in legal databases, so it's difficult to determine whether other cases have been filed.
Of the cases that have gone to court, the results have been mixed.
Yelp reviewer Deborah Johnson won big last September, when a judge not only quietly dismissed the case against her, but ordered the plaintiff to pay her legal bills. In that case, Joseph Styger, a dentist, filed a defamation lawsuit in San Francisco against Johnson, a patient-turned-reviewer. But he lost because he sued more than one year after she posted her write-up--which was after the statute of limitations had run, according to Johnson's attorney, Paul Clifford of the public interest firm California Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Project.
Another case, brought by pediatric dentist Yvonne Wong against two parents, Tai Jing and Jia Ma, is still making its way through the court. The parents allegedly wrote that their son was "light headed" from laughing gas and that he received a filling containing mercury, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The California Anti-SLAPP Project recently agreed to represent the parents after Yelp put the firm in contact with them. Clifford said he expected to file court papers in that case soon.
California's strong anti-SLAPP law provides for dismissal of lawsuits that aim to squelch people's right to speak about public matters. The state also allows defendants to recover their attorneys' fees in such cases.
But not all Yelp reviewers have had their cases dismissed under California's consumer-friendly law. Last August, a California appeals court refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the owners of the Sandra Caron European Spa after an ex-employee, Malgorzata Kerber, allegedly wrote bad reviews on Yahoo and Yelp.
The court in that case called the posts "essentially phony customer reviews" and also said the reviews didn't involve a matter of public interest. "The statements did not embrace the quality of spas in general or within a widespread chain of facilities, or the health and safety issues pertinent to the spa industry," the court wrote. That case is scheduled to go to trial in May.
Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said the court's opinion makes sense in that "a garden-variety consumer review isn't protected by anti-SLAPP laws because they are not sufficiently about public policy."
David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project, said he disagreed with the appellate court's conclusion, which he said rested on "a very constrained understanding of public interest--and one that's largely contrary to the popularity we're seeing of these review sites."
Ardia added that in the past, consumers did not have good methods to obtain information about some local businesses unless public officials investigated and filed reports. "Now, people are deciding for themselves what's of public interest by swapping stories," he said. "It's empowering to customers and, in the end, results in better products and services."