When Is An Online Review Defamation?

In a previous blog we discussed Texas Anti-SLAPP laws and how they affect and can protect businesses in many different ways. Though these statutes do include guidelines regarding reviews left by clients and customers, when it comes to the food industry, professional restaurant reviewers are expected to adhere to a set of journalism ethics. This essentially means that those reviewers are to share news, ideas, and opinions as fairly, accurately, completely, independently, and honestly as possible.

While we’d like to think we live in a day and age where those who post a review of a business are being as fair and honest as possible, sometimes that isn’t the case. When these false reviews are caught and substantiated with evidence by the restaurant to prove otherwise, the fraudulent reviewer can indeed be sued for presenting false information. Unfortunately however, the everyday customer can face almost no repercussions for spreading such falsifications, unless they get slapped with a defamation lawsuit.

Defamation is a legal term, which includes both written (libel) and spoken (slander) speech that hurts or diminishes someone’s reputation or character. Though defamation isn’t a crime, it can lead to civil liability. So, in the event someone who left an untrue review online is sued for defamation, that person won’t receive any jail time, but they could potentially be responsible for paying damages.

In order for the victim of a false review to establish they are dealing with defamation, they will need to prove the statement was indeed published, false, injurious, and unprivileged. Privileged speech includes anything said in a deposition or court proceeding, statements made by government officials, conversations between spouses or with your doctor or lawyer, or statements made by a former employee to a potential employer. Since online restaurant reviews do not qualify as privileged, the road to filing a defamation suit is much easier for the restaurant owner.

However, in many cases a reviewer will attempt to prove that a statement is one of opinion as opposed to fact, or in the event they decide to retract their statement, a lawsuit can ultimately be avoided.

In December of 2018, for example, South Carolina restaurant Buoys on the Boulevard sued a customer for libel when she posted a false review. The incident occurred after the restaurant had changed ownership in March and refused to honor a coupon issued by the previous owner. The customer went on in her review to claim she found a worm in her sushi, but the restaurant refuted the claim stating that no food was actually served to her during this particular incident and was able to back up their claim with video evidence.

Unfortunately for many business owners, online review fraud is something that goes on almost daily. Though the majority of the time reviews are truthful, and they are absolutely necessary to have in today’s cyber-centric world. However, it can seem that occasionally experiences with a business are less about the events that actually occurred, and are more tailored towards how the consumer feels upon leaving.

Houston Business Litigation Attorneys

While there are many paths to resolving legal disputes, the path you take will be determined by your circumstances and goals. Litigation is one tool that can help to resolve legal disputes, and it has both advantages and disadvantages. The Houston business litigation attorneys at Adair Myers Graves Stevenson can explain the potential risks and benefits associated with taking a case to trial so you can feel confident about choosing litigation. Contact us today to see how you can get started.