For more than a decade, disgruntled customers have been unleashing their frustration over bad customer experiences on review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, often damaging a restaurant or hotel's business in the process.
Now, businesses are fighting back.
Like the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool, England, which charged one couple an extra £100 ($156) after they left a negative review of the hotel on TripAdvisor, calling it a “filthy, dirty rotten stinking hovel." (After the couple complained to authorities, their fine will be refunded, according to reports.)
And Hotel Quebec, which sued a guest for $95,000 after he wrote a review on TripAdvisor saying he was bitten by bed bugs there.
And Dietz Development LLC, a Fairfax, Va.-based contractor owned by Christopher Dietz, who sued a negative Yelp reviewer for $750,000 in a defamation suit.
"Businesses that generate income from Yelp and TripAdvisor will be more and more aggressive about how they protect themselves," James Hunt, an attorney with Slater, Tenaglia, Fritz & Hunt in New York, told Main Street earlier this year.
"The rapid growth of online reviews has certainly led to an increase in lawsuits against reviewers," added Josh King, general counsel for legal marketplace Avvo.com, which features reviews of attorneys by clients.
That's because sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp are increasingly important to the business of many establishments like hotels and restaurants. TripAdvisor (and its 24 subsidiary sites) get 315 million visitors per month, and the company has more than 190 million reviews covering more than 4.4 million accommodations, restaurants, and attractions, according to the company's website.
Yelp is also a hugely popular review site, with 139 million monthly visitors and 33 million reviews written each month.
Several studies have underscored the importance of review sites to the businesses they review. One study showed that a one star increase in rating on Yelp yields a 5-9 percent increase in revenue for a company. In other words, positive reviews are important to a company's reputation and success - and negative reviews can be very damaging.
Damaging enough that businesses are beginning to target the people behind the negative reviews – not companies like Yelp or TripAdvisor, which have significant legal protections, but the actual posters of wrote the review, average folks writing about a bad experience at a hotel or restaurant.
So can you get sued for leaving a bad review on Yelp or TripAdvisor?
As previous examples have shown, yes.
What about free speech?
Freedom of speech under the US Constitution, courts have ruled, doesn't extend to defamation – statements that are damaging to a person or business's good reputation. Generally speaking, a defamatory statement must be false for the reviewer to be held liable.
That said, there are ways for reviewers to continue to write reviews, even negative ones, and not get sued (depending on the laws of the country where the case is brought, since libel laws vary significantly between the US and other countries).
For starters, truth is generally a good defense, so would-be reviewers are encouraged not to lie or exaggerate their negative experience. But reviewers may have to prove their complaint is true – that there were, in fact, cockroaches in the hotel room, or hair in the bathtub, and present evidence as proof.
In such cases, there's often safety in numbers. Even better than truth is when "five or ten other posters share similar feelings," said Hunt.
That said, as Andrew Couts at Digital Trends notes, reviews are one of the only forums in which opinions and emotions are, from a legal standpoint, better than fact, at least in the US. That's because opinions, under the free-speech amendment, tend to be protected by the US Constitution. So it's safer to say, "In my opinion, I was served bread that tasted stale," than "The restaurant serves old, moldy, stale bread."
Similarly, if an experience left you angry, it's better to write, "The entire experience left me very uncomfortable," than it is to launch accusations at the proprietors with whom you dealt.
In a court of law, emotions and opinions are more easily protected than statements of fact, which may be disputed or difficult to prove.
Digital Trends also offered this advice to would-be reviewers: "If you have a negative experience with a business, keep the facts simple and straightforward, and don’t exaggerate...[and] feel free to give a scathing opinion to avoid fudging the objective facts in a potentially slanderous way."