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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Wow, this is insane! How can she be sued for her personal opinion? Can we do anything these days without fear of being sued?
Shelly Slader | http://www.andyandbax.com/militarysurplus.bax?cart=13862663641159708

February 06 2014 at 11:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

That is crazy that they would get sued over just a review that they did on them. I mean I know that a lot of things that people say can and will really change the way that people think about a business and can tell you the experiences that they had with that specific company. That is just really crazy to think about that something along this lines could even happen. I am just really glad that this did not happen to me ever and lets hope that it continues this way.
Jak Manson | http://www.eurobahnm.com/

February 03 2014 at 11:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Debbie Joy

I had a bad experience with a local owner/operator of a national kitchen cabinet franchise. He told us half-truths about his products and services. We were very disappointed in the results and when we let the owner know about our concerns we were scolded for having them and told to pay up: make our second installment payment as agreed. We had already made a large down payment of almost 50% prior to any work being done and were adamant that the current situation be corrected before we handed over any more money. We ended up hiring someone else to fix the problems all of which could not be corrected so we are having to live with any of them. That same year the company threatened us with a mechanics lien if we did not pay them the full amount owed even though they breached the contract by not really providing the products or services that were promised. They filed the lien but never enforced it. We never heard from the company again until a little over three years later when they attempted to sue us in small claims court for more than double the amount of the balance.. We knew truth was on our side so we did not roll over. We went to small claims court completely prepared. We listened to the franchise owner try to convince the magistrate in open court that we were schemers who intended to cheat him out of merchandise and money all along. We sat there knowing we have excellent credit and that the only black mark against us is the very lien this man put on our house and failed to enforce. Fortunately, the magistrate saw through him and he did not prevail. After such an ordeal I wanted to report this business to BBB and to the "list" that recommended him in the first place b/c in our experience he misuses the courts to play "chicken" with people and try to force them into paying high prices for inferior products and workmanship. That said, I was very disappointed to find that BBB does not except reports when there has been some type of litigation b/c this does nothing but encourage unscrupulous people to continue to misuse the courts. Likewise, I am disappointed that magazines renowned for providing lists of reputable businesses and/or service providers bury bad reports on certain businesses at the bottom of their "lists" when those businesses are part of a large national franchise that buys advertising from them in several markets. This article advises against making a fb post for fear of a lawsuit. So how does one get the word out about a business that lacks integrity??? I am not sure. However, I do know that I will never trust such a list ever again. OLD FASHIONED LOCAL WORD OF MOUTH COMING FROM PEOPLE YOU ACTUALLY KNOW PERSONALLY IS THE ONLY WAY TO GO.

July 31 2013 at 10:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

On the flip side shouldn't there be a punishment for companies that create false accounts and enflate thier ratings by reviewing themselves? It should go both ways.

May 22 2013 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There are Customers who try to use yelp to extort businesses to get free rides or perks.

I think that online reviewers should have a rule that if you even mention that you are going to post a bad review to a company online, your review should be deleted.

Any Customer that says gimme this or that or I will post a bad review online, is unscrupulous for doing so in the first place. Even if said company does cave in, that review would not be honest because it no longer reflects the genuine behavior of the company in question and if reviews are supposed to help Consumers choose, reviews should be done without malice, some degree of reasonabilty, responsibility and even accountability by the Writer who wields this power.

A genuine review should happen with no prior notice to the company so that there is no possibility of a motive by the Customer. While we do not want to hinder first amendment rights, we should be careful not to facilitate crime. This is a hard thing to post because we live in a society where the Customer's always right and the poor defrauded Consumer against against the big bad corporate monster has become our Mantra and God forbid a company tries to defend themselves we are all "appalled" , that is until some of us become Business Owners and we realize that Consumers can behave like Monsters too.

September 22 2012 at 5:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply