MARCH 12, 2014
“Online Commentator Critical Of Business Can Be Sued For Defamation, Oregon Court Says”
Aimee Green, OREGON LIVE
Thinking of posting a bad review about your latest dining experience, doctor you consulted or contractor you hired? Better think twice, if you don’t want to get sued.
That’s the de facto message the Oregon Court of Appeals sent Wednesday, when it breathed new life into a $7,500 defamation suit filed by the owner of an outdoor wedding venue northwest of Eugene. The case is among the first in Oregon to test the protections afforded to consumers who post their opinions on the Internet, including on such sites as Yelp, Google Reviews, Angie’s List, Facebook and Twitter.
Depending on your perspective, Wednesday’s ruling should be decried by anyone with a consumer gripe — or celebrated by leagues of business owners who agonize over what every negative review might do to their bottom lines.
The case at issue began in 2011, when Christopher Liles, two days after attending a friend’s wedding, posted a scathing critique of the venue on Google Reviews.
The California man, who was in Oregon for the wedding, titled his post “Disaster!!!!!” and described one of owners of the Dancing Deer Mountain wedding venue as “two faced” and “rude.” The “bridal suite,” he said, was a “tool shed that was painted pretty, but a tool shed all the same.” And Liles was irked that the owners, he said, shepherded out all guests 45 minutes early.
Owner Carol Neumann said business took a nosedive after Liles’ one-star critique, so she and her company filed suit. Her Eugene attorney, Steve Baldwin, argued that online commenters aren’t free to post false statements without repercussions and that Neumann was entitled to sue.
Liles’ attorney, however, argued that her client was simply expressing his opinion — with a whole lot of hyperbole (e.g. “The worst experience of my life!”) — which he was entitled to.
Lane County Circuit Court Judge Charles Carlson sided with Liles by throwing out the suit under a 2001 Oregon law designed to safeguard speech in public forums. It’s known as the state’s anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, law.
A three-judge panel of the Oregon Court of Appeals, however, ruled Wednesday that Neumann should be allowed to proceed with her defamation claim because a “reasonable fact finder” could conclude that Liles posted not just his opinions but factual statements that Neumann might be able to prove are untrue.
Linda K. Williams, the Portland attorney representing Liles, said states and federal courts across the country are in various stages of determining which consumer gripes are protected and which go too far. In her research, she’s found 26 states with anti-SLAPP laws.
“It happens all of the time that businesses are outraged about a review,” Williams said. “Often times, they will sue for defamation just to shut up critics.” Williams said California’s law, which is about 20 years old, has been the most tested. And it repeatedly has protected online commenters from reviews similar to Liles’.
Williams successfully defended a man who complained online that a Pearl District dentist did shoddy work, warning future customers that if that dentist “tells you that you have a cavity — GET A SECOND OPINION.” The dentist in June 2012 sued for $300,000, but a Multnomah County judge tossed the case out.
In a case that attracted widespread attention, a jury in January failed to award any money to a Washington, D.C., home contractor who sued a homeowner for $750,000 after she posted scathing reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List about the quality of his work. She also accused him of stealing her jewelry.
But even so, new cases pop up frequently in Oregon and across the nation. “The law of defamation is trying to catch up with technology,” Williams said. Attorneys from both sides of Christopher Liles’ case agree, it’s one that will be watched in Oregon.
“There’s a lot of business people in the same boat as my clients,” said Baldwin, the wedding venue owner’s attorney.
Williams plans to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider. And if it doesn’t, she’ll appeal the case to the Oregon Supreme Court.