Much of the value of popular sites like Yelp, Open Table, Amazon and many others lies in reading customer reviews. Before I buy a product, reserve a restaurant or book a hotel I will often browse what others have to say. It's a great way to cut through the hype to learn from someone”s unvarnished experience.
User comments reward worthy businesses and products and steer people clear of undesirable ones, so I encourage you to add your feedback. Think of it as a public service. But can your comments come back to bite you?
The short answer is yes. People who have posted negative comments have found themselves as defendants in lawsuits, charged with defamation. According toÂ Leita Walker, a Minneapolis attorney, â€œThe rule is youâ€™re responsible for what you say.â€ It doesn't matter where you say it.
Black's Law Dictionary defines defamation as “A false written or oral statement that damages another's reputation.” The key here is “false.”Â Plaintiff must prove that a statement is indeed false and not just a matter of opinion.
If you critique a restaurant and comment that the service was slow, that's just your opinion, as there is no objective standard for speed of service. But if you write that it took 30 minutes for your meal to arrive and the proprietor can prove that your food was served in 10 minutes, oops, now you've made a false statement.
Do you really need to worry about this? Given the millions of online comments, the number of lawsuits is very, very small. Businesses that do sue may be motivated more by silencing critics than collectingÂ damages. Their real aim is to limit free speech.
These lawsuits, know as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPP, may be limited by law. Twenty-seven U.S. states have anti-SLAPP laws that allow a judge to dismiss a complaint and compel plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal bills.
Still, it's no fun being on the receiving end of a lawsuit.
You can avoid trouble when offering feedback by following these tips:
1. Don't post in anger. Sure, you might be pissed off, but before you post, cool off. Write your comments, put them aside and then review them carefully in light of the next two points.
2. Be constructive. Offer useful information for others; don't try to mete out revenge.
3. Tell the truth. Don't exaggerate. Make sure you can back up your story with facts. If appropriate, take a picture with your smartphone, save receipts, have someone who can verify what happened. Armed with evidence, a litigious business should back off.