Seething From An Online Review About Your Business? Suing May Or May Not Be The Best Answer

If you're proud of your business and work hard to make sure that your customers have good service and leave happy, that can make it especially frustrating when you look online and find a review on Yelp, Facebook, or some other website that's just not true. Can you sue over a bad review? Yes—some businesses already have. But should you sue? That's a more difficult question to answer. Here's what to consider.

Is the customer expressing an opinion or challenging a fact?

You're bound to have an unhappy customer or two if you're in business for any length of time—and some may just be vocal about their dissatisfaction. However, a negative online review is generally sued under defamation laws and that means that a customer can't be sued unless he or she alleges something that is factually incorrect. There's a lot of things that are simply subjective in nature. For example, saying, "the prices were too high" is subjective in nature. On the other hand, a customer who alleges "the waitress stole my credit card number and I know she's responsible for the unauthorized charges on my account" is making a statement of fact that he or she had better be able to back up in court. 

Will your credibility be damaged in some way if you simply do nothing?

In a slight twist on the whole idea of suing over reviews, Amazon took numerous individuals and companies to court over positive reviews. The problem with the reviews is that they were fake. People sold their glowing 4-star or 5-star reviews for products they'd never purchased for $5 a post through Fiverr and similar other companies (some whose sole purpose was to create fake Amazon reviews). Glowing endorsements from people who haven't tried the product essentially defeat the purpose of customer reviews in the first place, which could ultimately make people less trusting of the online shopping giant and hurt the business. The company's integrity was at stake.

On the other hand, Amazon reached out and helped a reviewer who made an actual purchase and was dissatisfied with what he received. When the company that marketed the product through Amazon threatened to sue the Floridian, Amazon revoked the seller's privileges for violating a rule that prohibits sellers from asking buyers to remove negative reviews. Again, the actions Amazon took were designed to protect its overall integrity and trustworthiness with customers.

Will your credibility be damaged if you do pursue a lawsuit?

The horror stories in recent years of people getting sued for giving bad online reviews has attracted the attention of the nation's lawmaker's. Anti-SLAPP laws, which are designed to strike back at "strategic lawsuits against public participation" (SLAPP) exist in 28 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam. They give a judge the power to look at a lawsuit and dismiss it if it is designed to essentially punish an unhappy consumer for speaking his or her mind. That could damage your reputation if it happens and make your company look hostile, aggressive, and like it has something to hide.

You could also find yourself facing more unwanted scrutiny and negative publicity. Take the case of the Manhattan dentist who has sued five patients for negative reviews since 2012. Yelp has issued a "Consumer Alert" warning potential clients that the dentist may be trying to stop clients from using their right to free speech to complain about their service.

What if you aren't sure what to do about a review?

If you aren't sure what to do about an online review, talk to a business attorney about business law before you take any further action. You may want to consider other factors, depending on your unique situation, but you always want to keep in mind how your action—or inaction—could be perceived by future customers.