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Think before you post that negative review of a business online – you could get sued

Back in the day when someone had a complaint about a business, that person would call and give them a piece of their mind. Times have changed and when someone is displeased a business’s service, it’s blasted out on the internet for all to see.

You don’t have to look hard to find customers’ negative reviews about businesses. You can find them plastered all over sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp or Google. Sometimes you’ll see a business respond with their side of the story but more often, you’ll see them trying to make the situation right.

Well, most of the time, anyway because there’s a trend among some businesses to file what are known as SLAPP lawsuits against customers who leave negative reviews online. And regardless of whether you’re right or wrong, what you post could lead to getting sued.

SLAPP lawsuits: protection against libel, or a threat to free speech?

Reviewing a business on the web is reflexive, at this point, for many of us. If we’re happy with a product or service, we want the people responsible to know how we feel. By extent, we also want to share our opinion with the rest of the internet. It’s a very human reaction, and one of the reasons why social media is so popular in the first place: people love sharing what they’re up to!

That said, nobody is ever happy to get negative feedback on something they are in charge of. But some businesses and companies are taking a different approach to curate their own reviews. Rather than respond and engage with the feedback, they’re responding to negative reviews by suing customers for defamation and libel!

This type of lawsuit is referred to by legal analysts as a SLAPP lawsuit (short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Rather than proceed with litigation with the intention of winning, the plaintiffs in SLAPP suits rely on brute force and superior resources to bully defendants into retracting their comments or backing down completely.

The suits are often crafted to be complicated, lengthy, and expensive for participants. So if a person doesn’t have the means to defend themselves financially, they often have no choice but to give in to the demands of the plaintiff — which usually comes in the form of damages, apologies, and removing the “offending” review or comments.

How have SLAPPs affected internet reviewers?

A number of reviewers from around the web have found themselves on the wrong end of SLAPP lawsuits based on comments they’ve left on websites like Yelp and Google. Typically, these suits take a good deal of time to resolve and often leave defendants with high legal bills that exceed their ordinary cost of living.

In an interview with CBS This Morning, Yelp user Tom Lloyd opened up about a lawsuit he received after leaving comments about a veterinary practice in Florida. After spending six hours of his dying dog’s life without finding a surgeon to save him (the lead surgeon had gone on vacation), the practice told Tom that there was nothing they could do. He left a negative review only to be hit with a SLAPP suit for defamation.

As of now, Tom currently owes $26,000 in legal bills from the ordeal. He’s far from the only individual threatened with SLAPP suits in recent years, however.

One woman in Texas was sued for thousands of dollars after leaving a negative review at a loan agency. Another man was sued for $125,000 after he left an unsatisfactory review for a flooring job that was, in his own words, “botched.”

Hope on the horizon

SLAPP lawsuits are starting to get attention in a number of jurisdictions. As of today, 28 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territory of Guam have added anti-SLAPP statutes to their legal codes. These statutes are designed to help defendants navigate and potentially dismiss the suits should they become involved in one.

States with anti-SLAPP statutes currently include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Washington.

If you find yourself hit with a SLAPP suit in the future, your best bet is to check your state’s laws and know your rights before proceeding with legal assistance.

Our ability to publicly dissent is a cornerstone of American society. Without it, big businesses become the ones that set the standard for acceptable discourse. It’s up to all of us to ask ourselves if this is something we’re really comfortable with.

On the flip side, if you are inclined to leave a negative review be sure you have hardcore facts to back up your claims. Don’t slander anyone and even though you’re upset, leave your emotions out of it.

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