Commentary

Yelp Flags Businesses That Sue Over Bad Reviews

Manhattan dentist Nima Dayani is hardly the only health care professional to receive bad reviews online. But he may well be one of the only ones to sue five separate patients for panning him on the Web.

Now, Yelp is warning Dayani's future patients about his lawsuits. Visitors to Yelp's page for Dayani are now greeted with the following message: "Consumer Alert: Questionable Legal Threats."

Yelp adds: "This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers. As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on Yelp."

The five lawsuits, all filed in the last four years, along with Yelp's warning, came to light on Monday.

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Yelp has placed similar warnings on its page for two other businesses: the Dallas-based pet-sitting service Prestigious Pets, and Superior Moving & Storage in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Prestigious Pets is suing a Texas couple for $1 million for writing that the company overfed their pet goldfish. Prestigious Pets says its contracts with consumers contain non-disparagement clauses that prohibit negative reviews. (Congress currently is considering legislation that would prevent companies from requiring customers to sign non-disparagement agreements.)

Superior Moving and Storage also is suing a consumer who posted a one-star review on Yelp.

Earlier this week, Yelp Senior Vice President Vince Sollitto said in a blog post that the alerts are intended to serve as a warning to consumers.

"Consumers don’t necessarily know that these threats are sometimes empty or meritless (and often both!), so the threat of legal action is enough to scare them into silence. We don’t think that’s right," Solitto writes.

Of course, the alerts aren't just a warning to consumers: They also serve to tell business owners that suing customers might result in the kind of bad publicity that could scare off new patrons. Whether that discourages companies from bringing new cases against consumers remains to be seen.

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