Yelp users who think they can retaliate against a business by leaving a falsely negative review might want to think again, lest they get served a hefty fine. That’s according to a precedent set by a recent ruling in California, which, if upheld, could have wider implications for those who post negative reviews online.
The rather complicated lawsuit involves a Yelp user in California, Ava Bird, and her former attorney, Dawn Hassell. According to Lexology, shortly after Hassell began representing Bird in a personal injury case, Hassell withdrew. Bird then took to Yelp, posting “numerous negative and false reviews” about Hassell and her firm. After Bird refused to take the reviews down, Hassell sued her for defamation.
According to Lexology, Bird then failed to appear before the California Superior Court for San Francisco County, so a default judgment of $557,918.75 was entered against her. Additionally, the court ordered her to take down the defamatory reviews. But perhaps the most interesting bit of the case hinges on this, per Lexology: The court issued a separate order against Yelp, “not a party to the litigation, to remove the defamatory review.”
Yelp is appealing the case but, if it is upheld, it could have wide implications for both reviewers and review sites: “If the Hassell holding stands,” writes Lexology’s Cozen O’Connor, “it could provide more complete relief to victims of defamatory and otherwise harmful online speech. It would also impose a greater burden on providers of online speech platforms.”
The ruling has the potential to set a pretty strong precedent: not only could those who leave false reviews be sued (and subject to damages), but the review site itself could, too.
Yelp has recently worked to crack down on fake reviews, going undercover to determine whether businesses have plied users with rewards in exchange for positive reviews. But, as documentary filmmaker Kaylie Milliken notes in her upcoming film Billion Dollar Bully, the company is slower to take action when it comes to false negative reviews.
For her film, Milliken interviewed one business owner whose Yelp profile was suddenly inundated with spam reviews. "Someone left 15, five-star reviews on his page that all said the same thing: 'The steak here is amazing. Ask for the secret sauce.'" The problem, of course, is that the business owner sells neither steak nor secret sauce.
Though he attempted to contact Yelp and have the reviews removed, the business owner’s calls were never returned, says Milliken.