In a blow to angry Yelpers nationwide, a Virginia court has ruled that one woman's scathing Yelp reviews of a local contractor were in fact defamation. In a dramatic turn, the contractor who sued her was found guilty of defamation too. The Washington Post reports that the multi-day trial concluded last week, with neither side receiving damages. So what happened?
Back in 2011, Perez had claimed in her one-star review that contractor Christopher Dietz had botched the job, stolen her jewelry, and damaged her home. (Those claims have since been deleted). Dietz then brought a $750,000 lawsuit against Perez in December 2012, claiming she had defamed him and cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business. The case finally went to trial last week.
Even though the jury found that both parties had defamed each other (Perez with the review, Dietz in his online responses to the review), the case sets a precedent that Yelp reviews can be defamatory. Yahoo! Finance's Mandi Woodruff notes: "Perez was let off the hook for damages, but the next person to wind up in court for defaming a business in an online review may not be so lucky." A lawyer representing a First Amendment advocacy group also points out that getting sued can be a very costly experience; Perez had a pro bono lawyer, but a case like this could become "quite taxing financially."
The law surrounding negative Yelp reviews, particularly as it related to free speech, has been a hot topic lately. Last month, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that Yelp must reveal the identities of seven anonymous Yelpers who left negative reviews of a Virginia-based business. In the decision, Judge William Petty wrote that the negative reviews in question were not protected by the First Amendment because "If the reviewer was never a customer of the business, then the review is not an opinion; instead, the review is based on a false statement of fact ... And 'there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.'" Yelpers, take heed.