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Thursday
31 July 2014

Yelp reviewers beware, negative reviews may get you sued

A lawsuit filed in response to a negative business review on popular place review site Yelp could give reviewers food for thought, reports CNET.  San Franciscan Christopher Norberg is being sued for defamation by chiropractor Steven Biegel after posting a negative review of Biegel’s business practices on the popular Yelp.  Norberg began visiting the chiropractor after being hit by a car.  Biegel sent Norberg’s $125 bill to his auto insurance provider after which a wild shitstorm broke loose.  According to the review Biegel billed the insurance company $550 citing “costs in dealing with the paperwork and delays in receiving payment” as the reason behind the higher cost.  When his insurance submission was denied, Biegel allegedly demanded Norberg pay the full $550, then decided to waive the fee…then decided to charge the original $125 which Norberg paid.

On November 16, 2007 Norberg posted a Yelp review detailing the entire billing dispute on Yelp.com, a site which lists Biegel as a sponsored listing.  On December 7, 2007 Biegel asked Norberg to remove the review as it “unjustly characterizes me as unethical and dishonest”.  Biegel felt the entire dispute could be chalked up to a misunderstanding regarding office procedures.  Norberg didn’t comply and received a letter from Biegel’s lawyer threatening legal action after which Norberg removed the review.  A lawsuit was filed anyway on February 25, 2008 in which Biegel alleges he suffered a loss of business reputation and revenues as a result of the review and is seeking punitive damages.  The case is set to go before the San Francisco Superior Court March 2.

According to Yelp this is the first case of its kind involving its review platform which relies heavily on consumer reviews as part of its business model.

I’m not sure what to think of this at the moment.  Biegel’s insurance practices seem sort of scammy to me but it’s tough to form an opinion on something like this.  Is it defamation on Norberg’s part?  A consumer review is defined as opinion in my mind.  Norberg stated actual facts in his review, but from what I can gather he didn’t factually say Biegel was crooked.  Unproven fact is where defamation lies.

It seems though that the lawsuit has done more to damage Biegel than the review.  Yelp says that referrals to Biegel through Yelp weren’t much different pre- and post-review, but have gone done since the lawsuit was filed.  Not surprising.  Now that this is a public matter, bloggers will be spinning this story every which way and I’d be willing to bet that Biegel will come out on the losing end of all the banter.

No matter how this case turns out, it’s definitely something to think about for those that post negative reviews.  Just be careful how you word things.  A negative opinion isn’t something that can be successfully brought before the court.  But if an opinion can be spun into something resembling fact, it is.  Not long ago I had this problem with GPS manufacturer Clarion.  After predicting that the company would eventually go under I was threatened with a lawsuit.  But I argued that my opinion was just that.  Opinion.  Nothing factual supported my opinion and I felt what I said was clear.  It’s a fine line.

I just hope cases such as these don’t ultimately inhibit the freedom the internet offers people to express their thoughts and views.  Wouldn’t that be a shame.

Norberg apparently feels the same way.  He’s put up a website, Stand For Speech, from which he leads you straight to the Yelp Exhibit A.  However, I should also mention that a quick look at Biegel’s Yelp listing has him rated a 4.5/5 after 20 reviews.  Got to cover my ass and all.

(Image Credit: trepelu)

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