A lawsuit filed by a prominent local veterinarian against a man who wrote a negative review of his practice on the on-line consumer site 'Yelp.com' has raised serious questions about what customers can and cannot say in reviews they write on line, 1200 WOAI news reports.
Consumer review sites have become among the most popular sites on the web, compiling unedited and sometimes defamatory comments which are frequently sought out by other potential clients of the business.
Judith Blakeway, an attorney with the local firm of Strasburger Price and the former attorney for the San Antonio Light, is one of the state's leading experts on the law of libel, slander, and defamation. She says the key is not to state any facts which you cannot prove are correct.
"If you write 'I think he's a crook,' and then if you go on and say 'I think he's a crook because he stole the money,' your opinion is not verifiable but the fact is, and if the fact is false, then that's defamatory," she said.
Many people feel that they are protecting themselves by stating facts rather than simply stating their opinion, but Blakeway says in reality, the opposite is true.
"If you do base your opinion on facts, you need to give what the facts are and you must make sure those facts are a valid basis for your opinion," she said.
If you stick to opinion, you will most likely not find yourself in legal trouble because, as Blakeway put it, 'there is no such thing as a false opinion.'
One huge mistake that on line commentators make is saying things like "I don't think this plumber is qualified." She says that is a statement of fact, and is easily disprovable.
"If you say he is not qualified and it turns out that he is, then you may have defamed him, since that goes to his business and profession," she said.
So, the bottom line, is, if you say "I think they did sloppy work," and state it as your opinion, you are actually safer than saying "He left a mess on the floor," because that is a fact, and if it can be disproven, then you may have defamed the individual.
"Make sure it is very clear that what you are doing is stating objective views, personal reactions, and make sure you state that it is opinions," she said.
As far as companies which find themselves defamed on line, Blakeway says in many cases they are better off asking that the comment be removed, apologizing on line to the individuals, or posting rebuttals or positive comments to drown out Debby Downer. She says suing is frequently not a very effective remedy, because the Yelp commentator may not have any money to collect in damages, and the lawsuit will have the effect of calling more attention to the negative review.
When it comes to on line comments about public officials, Blakeway says courts have ruled that bloggers are protected under a significant U.S. Supreme Court ruling called 'New York Times v. Sullivan.' Under that ruling, comments made about people who have, through their own actions made themselves public figures cannot be considered to have been libeled or slandered unless the comments were made with 'actual malice' or by somebody who 'knew them to be false' and wrote them anyway.
But the Sullivan Exemption does not apply to business owners of employees of businesses.