No one likes to be criticized on social media. Bad Google reviews, and even dishonest ones, are a reality of life (and business) now. Over the last few years, I have received many phone calls from people about negative online reviews and wanting to hire a lawyer, so the reviews can be taken down. Many times, the callers also want to know what options they have to sue for defamation. As you will read about more below, this is almost always a customer service issue, not a legal one.
What can a business owner do about bad reviews?
Every business, no matter how successful, is going to have to deal with bad reviews. These might be someone’s opinion; others might be false statements. As you know, this is a “free country.” What you might not know is that because this is a free country, the courts have no interest in stopping people from posting whatever they want or forcing them to remove false and even defamatory comments. With very few exceptions, a court of law is never going to order someone to remove a comment they have made on the internet. This is what “free speech” is all about.
Sure, you might be able to sue someone for “defamation” if their review contains false information but, in the end, all a court can do is award money. They cannot order the reviewer to take the post down or order Facebook or Google to take the post down.
Is it worth my time to file a defamation lawsuit?
The effort to go to court takes time away from your business and costs you money and legal fees. Also, courts do not work quickly. This process takes months and even years. If you do win money, there is a good chance the person you get the judgment against doesn’t even have the money to pay you. Also, the review or comments end up being there forever unless you can get the reviewer to take it down or convince the platform to take it down.
What can I do on my own about a bad review?
Step one should be reaching out to the reviewer. Ask them to take down the review or comments. If that does not work, step two should be reaching out to the platform – Google, Facebook, Yelp, etc. If something is truly false and defamatory, the platforms have methods for investigating and taking action. If it turns out the post is someone expressing their opinion, you are stuck with it.
Alternatively, a thoughtful response to the review might be appropriate. Your best move is to focus on getting more positive reviews from happy customers. More positive reviews are always the best remedy for bad reviews, not lawyers, lawsuits, judges and courts.
What should I consider before leaving a review as a customer?
Be careful when you post a negative review of a business. You might get the satisfaction of deterring other customers, or your review may prompt the business to make changes. What do you have to lose? Sometimes reviewers can lose thousands of dollars in attorney costs, legal fees, time spent defending themselves in court for a litigation process that can last months or years.
Can a business sue me for leaving a negative review?
We get calls from businesses owners all the time. Most are turned down due to the free speech reasons above. However, there are plenty of law firms that sign these businesses up as clients and get to work filing their cases. Once a lawyer gets involved, you cannot ignore the problem you have created by posting negative comments on the internet. Even if the review was just your opinion, it is now something you have to deal with.
If you get sued, you will need to hire an attorney to defend your right to freely state your opinion about a business. You will have to spend your time and your money defending yourself. Was that worth the bad review you left? Most likely not.
Do Virginia laws protect my free speech?
Virginia does not have “Anti-SLAPP” laws. These are laws designed to prevent this type of bullying. While it is a free country, the reality is that many businesses will spend tens of thousands of dollars to protect their online reputation and bully people to remove their negative post. The cost of your legal defense is 100% on you. If you win, you typically do not get the money you spent on legal fees back.
Think twice before leaving a negative review. While this historically was an activity with few repercussions, now many corporations and businesses aren’t afraid to spend money and time intimidating reviewers into taking posts down. If you are disappointed with the customer service you received, reach out privately to the business owners or manager, and let them know about your experience. This will likely generate more positive change then a few negative comments left on Google.