Can you get sued for posting an online review? Of course. Anything is possible.
Should you sue someone who speaks maliciously against your business in an online posting?
Read this article and decide for yourself.
It is perfectly human to want to silence online critics. But attempting this can trigger unwanted attention that defeats the entire purpose of doing so.
A lawsuit against a person who posted a negative online review may have backfired against the business that filed the suit.
According to multiple news sources, a parent company of a day care business called “The Blue Ash Educational Building” filed a lawsuit against a negative online commenter to Google Reviews on August 11, 2011.
The defendant is a woman who was a former customer of the business who had placed her child in day care there, and who was unhappy with the experience. She later posted the review that triggered the lawsuit.
The review that triggered the suit was relatively tame, if you compare it to negative online reviews that one can find on sites such as Angie’s List or Yelp.
Here is the text of the defendant’s online review:
Horrible – I found this schoool to be a complete mystery. My child attended this school and we as parents were to drop them off, being unable to ever go into the classroom on a day to day basis. I never met my sons teacher when he moved to another classroom and was kept in the dark about his behavior. I would not reccomend anyones pet to attend this school. A childs education involves parent and teacher communication and I didn’t receive that from this place. NEVER AGAIN!!
– from Google Reviews and court documents
A really interesting thing is apparent when you read these reviews and consider the dates of the posting of the comments on this review page.
(The Google Review page for this business is located here: http://g.co/maps/mkpa.)
The date that the story broke in the local media was August 29, 2011. Reviews of the Blue Ash business that were posted prior to this date were uniformly positive, with only a few negative comments. (Including the unfortunate defendant’s posting.)
The aftermath of the news story about this lawsuit is easy to see in these reviews. The Blue Ash Educational Building now has a backlog of Google reviews criticizing the business for alleged persecution of the defendant and for a variety of ills including spite, mean spiritedness, the shutting down of free speech, and other woes. In the comments sections of local news articles that describe the story, the rhetoric is very much the same.
Stirring Up the Hornet’s Nest of Public Opinion
The defendant’s posting was a emotional rant. It was an exception to a set of generally very positive reviews. In other words, an outlier.
Most people – potential customers included – would have viewed the day care in a positive light based on the majority of the day care’s online reviews, and would have viewed the one “rant” as perhaps questionable in origin.
Before the story broke.
After was quite another matter. By filing this lawsuit and then publicizing it, the Blue Ash Educational Building unwittingly created a significant negative publicity storm around its actions.
This business unwittingly “invited” the entire world in to clutter up its Google reviews page with a torrent of irrelevant, negative commentary that will probably frighten and concern a parent looking for day care who happens to stumble upon this review page. The net result is 17 spurious negative reviews containing insulting rants directed at the business, in a body of around 40 reviews total.
Is it wise for any business that is founded on its reputation to commit to a high-visibility and unpopular course of action such as this lawsuit? The suit seeks $25,000 in damages, according to news reports.
The damage in terms of lost business created by the publicity that this suit has generated online may actually be greater, even if the plaintiff prevails.
A Failure of Public Relations
The day care business has actually amplified what was formerly a “below the radar” anonymous posting that was counterbalanced by several positive reviews, and perhaps has created a new and very undesirable identity for itself.
In terms of public relations, this lawsuit and the publicity around it has turned out to be an “epic fail” of the highest order.
Perhaps you should be glad that in most cases it’s impractical to sue anyone who says bad things about you online. Once in a while, you may even learn some things that cause you to be a better professional.
This generally requires self discipline, a “Zen” calmness, and a commitment to doing such excellent work that the critics are few and far between.