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Can online reviews be considered defamation?

Running a business in Florida is a rewarding endeavor, but it comes with its own set of perils. You’ve got a bottom line to worry about, employees to satisfy and, oftentimes, ornery customers to deal with. The advent of the Internet has magnified the latter issue tenfold as sites seemingly pop up every week that give customers free rein to criticize your product or service. Some of this is good and can serve to spur you to fine tune your company.

But there are times when these reviews cross the line and venture perilously close to defamation that unfairly hurts your reputation. So where is the line between a customer’s right to vent her frustrations about an alleged bad transaction and a business owner’s right to protect his company from slander?

That’s the question on the table after a Virginia man sued seven of his customers who had left negative reviews on the popular online review site Yelp. As a result of the bad reviews, his business dropped by 30 percent and he was forced to lay off workers. He had suspicions, though that the reviews were not left by legitimate customers, but by competitors looking to drive his business down. He asked the courts to force the site to reveal the identity of the reviewers.

Here’s where it gets sticky. The reviewers are covered by the First Amendment if they are legitimate customers voicing an opinion. But, if they are not real reviews, they are based on a lie and are therefore not offered the same protection.

The courts so far have sided with the business owner, forcing Yelp to reveal the identities of the reviewers. However, Yelp is taking the matter to the state Supreme Court and the court has yet to make any definitive ruling about this specific set of circumstances.

If you feel your business has suffered an economic loss by libel or slander by another party, a Florida attorney may be able to help you recover any losses or seek punitive damages against them.

Source: wjla.com, “Business owner sues Yelp reviewers for defamation,” Jeff Goldberg, May 9, 2014

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