Woman sued over online review: 3 tips to avoid a lawsuit

It seems harmless enough. You have a bad experience with a company and post an account of the experience on Twitter, Angie's List, Yelp or some other consumer review site. If you're lucky, the complaint may fix your problem. But if you complain about the wrong company, you may end up at the wrong end of a lawsuit.

That's what happened to Helen Maslona of Chicago who gave local concrete company All Fields of Concrete Construction an "F" rating on consumer review website Angie's List. Maslona claims All Fields refused to give her an estimate on a new gangway and patio because they claimed they didn't work in her area -- a claim she found odd considering that her home was five miles away from the company's offices. The review would have mixed in with others, allowing consumers to take in all of the reviews and make up their own minds, but as CBS2 Chicago reports Michael Fitzgerald, the owner of All Fields of Concrete is singling out Maslona and suing her for $10,000, plus court costs alleging that she, "willingly and maliciously tried and succeeded in damaging my company's reputation."

Unfortunately lawsuits regarding online reviews and comments are becoming more common. These lawsuits, often referred to as SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) aren't designed to extract money from the individual, but silence.

The good news for Helen is that Illinois is one of 27 states that have an anti-SLAPP law in place which, if she's telling the truth, should allow a judge to dismiss the case and force the filing business to pay her legal costs.

Even if the lawsuit is dismissed, there's still a danger to consumers. Jeremy Gin, CEO of SiteJabber a review site for online businesses, told WalletPop that these types of lawsuits are dangerous because they interfere with free speech and lessen the value that online reviews provide to consumers when they are searching for service providers or businesses. His fear is that such lawsuits would lead to fewer authentic customer reviews thereby providing less value to consumers.

If you plan to post reviews online, Gin offers three tips to make sure your reviews don't result in a lawsuit -- or, at least, a lawsuit that you'll lose.
  • Tell the truth. "If you tell the truth and you're honest with your experience, you should not be held liable" said Gin.
  • Write to help other consumers. Gin suggests that you write your review to help other customers avoid the same fate rather than posting an angry diatribe against the company.
  • Cool off before you start typing. Finally, just like you should have a cooling off period before sending an angry email at work, walk around for 15 minutes and cool off before posting your review to make sure you don't let your anger cloud the facts surrounding your problem.
If you're a business there are better ways to handle negative online complaints. In an email to WalletPop Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List said "Angie's List invites service providers to monitor and respond to reports – free-of-charge – so that Angie's List members get both sides of the story. Many service companies choose to respond to both highly- and poorly-rated reports as part of their daily business practices."

Obviously, responding to the criticism online won't remove it, but for businesses that do care about their customers responses the response may be perceived as genuine and legitimate. And filing for a lawsuit to silence a critical review? Well, that can most definitely backfire. In fact, it generally results in more negative exposure. On review site Insiderpages, for instance, therre is already a two-star review for All Fields entitled that details the lawsuit and is entitled "Michael sues a customer." Ouch. That can't be good for business either.

Update: Monday Beam Esq, legal representative for All Fields of Concrete and Michael Fitzgerald provided the following official statement to WalletPop in an email, "The onset of social networking sites in today's increasingly technological society has resulted in an environment where a few keystrokes, whether malicious or not, could potentially have a significantly lasting effect on the reputation of a business targeted in an online complaint. This system works when the postings are truthful and accurate. However, when such comments are inflated, coupled with animosity, or are aimed to maliciously injure the reputation of a party based on half-truths, the content borders on defamation and there should be legal repercussions. Defamation is not new under the sun, but the technology to defame someone on a broad scale is now in the hands of millions. Kudos to this company for taking a stand to protect its interests."

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