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It’s a Draw: Split Decision Reached in Defamation Trial Featuring Housing Contractor vs. Yelp User

Remember that case several months ago about a housing contractor suing a Yelper for a negative review?

Well, it went to trial and a verdict has been reached: split decision.

The online defamation lawsuit had initially been filed by DC-based housing contractor Dietz Development’s Christopher Dietz, who was seeking $750,000 in damages from Yelp user Jane Perez. Perez had posted a scathing review of the company and accused the contractor of damaging her house and stealing her jewelry. “Bottom line (is),” she wrote, “do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”

(Check out: “9 Effective Tips for Responding to Online Critics”)

Dietz struck back by suing, stating that the “plaintiffs have been harmed by these (Perez’s) statements, including lost work opportunities, insult, mental suffering, being placed in fear, anxiety, and harm to their reputations.”

Last week, the Virginia Supreme Court and jury reached a decision after five days of trial. The split decision means that the court found that both Perez and Dietz had defamed each other. So no damages would be awarded to either.

The result of the trial could still significantly change the way consumers today interact with local businesses, particularly when it comes to posting their opinions on online review sites and ratings aggregators like Yelp, Google (Google+ Local), TripAdvisor, and Foursquare. That’s why the case was watched closely by businesses and free speech advocates alike.

“The fact that she had to go find a lawyer to defend herself and go all the way to trial is obviously a concern,” said Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for the First Amendment advocacy group Public Citizen. “If you don’t have a pro bono lawyer like she did, it can be quite taxing financially.”

Business owners like Dietz, meanwhile, are growing increasingly concerned that online review sites have the power to significantly damage their reputation, by way of false claims or unfair reviews that reach hundreds or even thousands of potential customers. “This has drained me, my business and my family – emotionally and financially,” he said.

We won’t argue with the decision the court has reached. But if we here at ReviewTrackers were to make a recommendation to business owners who have received a negative (and potentially harmful) review, we’d say: don’t sue. It makes much more sense (and it will cost less) to simply apply best practices for responding to bad reviews.

What are your thoughts on this case? Do you think that the court’s decision was fair or not? And what kind of action would you, as a business owner, take in the face of a potentially damaging negative online review? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Migs Bassig

Migs is the Content Manager for ReviewTrackers. He's a creative writer who has helped numerous companies communicate more effectively online, and he loves sharing his local marketing knowledge to help brands and business succeed.