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The Courts Your Rights Online

Virginia Woman Is Sued For $750,000 After Writing Scathing Yelp Review 424

Posted by samzenpus
from the sticks-and-stones dept.
First time accepted submitter VegetativeState writes "Jane Perez hired a construction company and was not happy with the work they did and alleged some of her jewelry was stolen. She submitted reviews on Yelp and Angie's List, giving the company all F's. The contractor is now suing her for $750,000. From the article: 'Dietz, the owner of Dietz Development, filed the Internet defamation lawsuit filed last month, stating that "plaintiffs have been harmed by these statements, including lost work opportunities, insult, mental suffering, being placed in fear, anxiety, and harm to their reputations." Perez's Yelp review accused the company of damaging her home, charging her for work that wasn't done and of losing jewelry. The lawsuit follows an earlier case against Perez, which was filed in July 2011 by Dietz for unpaid invoices. According to the recent filing, the two were high school classmates.'"
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Virginia Woman Is Sued For $750,000 After Writing Scathing Yelp Review

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  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by Raven42rac (448205) * on Thursday December 06, 2012 @06:49PM (#42210441)
    Doesn't apply to defamation/slander.
  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by kthreadd (1558445) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @06:51PM (#42210463)
    Unless it's true!
  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by diamondmagic (877411) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @06:56PM (#42210541) Homepage

    "No consequences" is misleading.

    "Free speech" means the government will not bring force against you for your speech. False and malicious speech, however, is a type of fraud: a different crime.

  • Re:Was this libel? (Score:5, Informative)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @06:56PM (#42210545) Journal

    I'm not a fancy lawyer or nothing; but this [citmedialaw.org] suggests that it could.

    Specifically: "In Virginia, a statement that does any of the following things amounts to defamation per se:
    (some irrelevant ones omitted)
    hurts the plaintiff in his or her profession or trade."

    A nasty yelp review would reasonably seem to be something that would hurt a contractor in their profession or trade. However, in order to be defamatory, the statement has to be a false statement of fact. If what she says turns out to be substantially true, he can just go cry about it(and "Nasty yelp review upheld in court of law" probably doesn't help your PR any). If she is lying or terribly ill-supported, though...

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by cob666 (656740) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:01PM (#42210591) Homepage

    If they were, then she's protected by free speech.

    Freedom of Speech has NOTHING to do with this case. Freedom of Speech applies only to the governments ability to restrict speech and doesn't apply to what you can say in an online forum. If what she said is in fact true then libel doesn't apply because truth is an absolute defense against libel and slander.

  • Re:Was this libel? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Kjella (173770) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:28PM (#42210813) Homepage

    A review score is an opinion. Her unhappyness is also an opinion. He would have to show the fact statements in the review were lies. Specifically he would have to prove that Jewelry was not stolen.

    That's far from the only "fact", there's at least three in the summary that are not opinion

      Perez's Yelp review accused the company of
    1. damaging her home,
    2. charging her for work that wasn't done and
    3. of losing jewelry.

    Those are all matters of fact, not opinion the court could look into. Also, this is a civil case not a criminal trial so the standard is "preponderance of evidence". Can she offer any evidence she had the jewels? Did she file a police complaint? The court system won't just take her word for it, if she's just throwing out accusations without a shred of evidence he might not have to prove a thing and still win. After all, how could he prove that jewels that doesn't exist haven't gone missing?

  • Re:Was this libel? (Score:4, Informative)

    by rsborg (111459) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:33PM (#42210861) Homepage

    From the link you provided

    To be “actionable,” the statement must be a false statement of fact.

    A review score is an opinion. Her unhappyness is also an opinion. He would have to show the fact statements in the review were lies. Specifically he would have to prove that Jewelry was not stolen.

    The score is opinion and even if the contractor was the best in the world, she could review with a 1 star and it's all completely subjective and not debatable.

    Her assertion that the contractor stole her jewelry is definitely objective and should be falsifiable. If it's false, and she did his with intent to harm, she's committed slander/libel.

  • Re:Shrug (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:36PM (#42210893)

    For fraud it has to be malicious. For defamation it merely has to be false (incompetence counts).

  • by nmb3000 (741169) <nmb3000@that-google-mail-site.com> on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:43PM (#42210969) Homepage Journal

    Just found the actual comment she left via the Daily Mail [dailymail.co.uk]:

    This is the text of Perez's original review posted on Angie's List in August 2012.

    Overall: F

    Price: F

    Quality: F

    Responsiveness: F

    Punctuality: F

    Professionalism: F

    Description Of Work: Dietz Development was to perform: painting, refinish floors, electrical, plumbing and handyman work. I was instead left with damage to my home and work that had to be reaccomplished for thousands more than originally estimated.

    Member comments: My home was damaged' the "work" had to be re-accomplished; and Dietz tried to sue me for "monies due for his "work." I won in summary judgement (meaning that his case had no merit). Despite his claims, Dietz was/is not licensed to perform work in the state of VA. Further, he invoiced me for work not even performed and also sued me for work not even performed. Today (six months later) he just showed up at my door and '"wanted to talk to me." I said that I "didn't want to talk to him," closed the door , and called the police. (The police said his reason was that he had a "lien on my house"; however this "lien" was made null and void the day I won the case according to the court.) This is after filing my first ever police report when I found my jewelry missing and Dietz was the only one with a key. Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.

    If that kind of review is worth $750,000 in damages then the Internet is boned. I thought the RIAA's damage calculations were bad -- There must be a trillion dollars worth of "harmful" reviews for places on Google Maps alone!

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by Shoten (260439) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:46PM (#42210999)

    Yes, but you can easily make the case that objectively false statements (as were made in this case) on a website intended to guide people in choosing a vendor are inherently malicious. It's not a casual conversation; it's going to a place whose sole purpose is to drive business towards or away vendors, and making untruthful statements. The woman didn't just give her opinion, but make non-subjective statements that were false on a website that she knew was a basis for reputation. That meets the standard for malice in my book.

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by HornWumpus (783565) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:51PM (#42211063)

    Funny. Exactly backwards. Truth is not a defense to libel in England. They even make jokes about it on southpark Tom Cruise: 'I'll sue you in England'

  • by Obfuscant (592200) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:52PM (#42211073)

    He sued her over unpaid invoices. She hired him again. He accepted work from someone who didn't pay bills before.

    How do you know this? We know there was an earlier suit over unpaid bills. We know there was a review claiming damages to the home and lost jewelry. We don't know that she hired him again after the first lawsuit or that he accepted a second job. For all we know the bad review was a poor attempt at getting back at the contractor for the earlier lawsuit.

    I really have no idea why they even WANT to do business with each other anymore.

    You have no idea that they want to do business with each other anymore, so wondering why they want to is a bit premature.

  • Re:Was this libel? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06, 2012 @07:59PM (#42211143)

    You're confusing criminal law and civil; as the defendant she's the one with the burden of proof.

    Huh? In both criminal and civil courts in common law systems (e.g. the UK and the US, including Virginia), the burden of proof is on the person bringing the suit - the state for criminal cases, and the plaintiff for civil cases. The threshold of proof is different, though, with "beyond a reasonable doubt" for criminal cases, and "preponderance of evidence/balance of probability" for civil cases.

    The default assumption going into the courtroom is that she hasn't done anything wrong - at least not at the level the court needs to intervene in. As the plaintiff in the case, the burden of proof is on him. He has to show the judge that there is "preponderance of evidence" that her actions are libelous ("preponderance" is somewhat loosely defined - any evidence at all might be considered a "preponderance", if the defense doesn't provide any countering evidence). That said, there may be a number of defenses available to her that would require her to prove something, but it would be incorrect to say that the defendant has the burden of proof in civil cases.

    I'm not sure where you got the idea that the defendant has the burden of proof in civil cases, but it might from confusing "civil cases" (as opposed to "criminal cases") with "civil law" (as opposed to "common law") legal systems. It is sometimes incorrectly said of civil law systems that they are "guilty until proven innocent" (i.e. burden of proof on the defendant). (I say "incorrectly" as because as I understand it, it more like that by the time a criminal case goes to trial in a civil law system court, the prosecutor has already shown evidence beyond a reasonable doubt in the equivalent of a grand jury, so for the trial proper it's mainly the defendant attempting to show where the "grand jury" got it wrong.)

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by egamma (572162) <egamma&gmail,com> on Thursday December 06, 2012 @08:03PM (#42211171)

    And Perez has the burden of proof. So far I'm not on her side.

    No, she doesn't. The person bringing the suit (the construction company) has to prove that what she said is false. You know, the whole innocent until proven guilty thing?

  • Re:Shrug (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 06, 2012 @09:05PM (#42211655)

    Truth (based on facts, not opinions) is an absolute defense to libel. (I am aware of the ruling in Noonan v. Staples that attempted to limit this.)

    The judge should have heard the guilty verdict, then directed a verdict of not guilty to be entered.

  • by cdrudge (68377) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @09:13PM (#42211717) Homepage

    According to the review on Yelp, she won a summary judgement on a civil lawsuit the contractor filed. She did file a police report, but only after he showed up on her door step to "talk" after she won the judgement. Nothing was mentioned regarding criminal charges.

    Reading the review, the only thing that I don't think could be substantiated in the review was that he stole her jewelry. She never comes out and says he did, but implies it by saying the jewelry was missing and he was the only other one with a key.

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by Eskarel (565631) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @10:17PM (#42212101)

    That's not entirely true. Truth is a defense in England it's just not a complete defense. If you say something that is false you're screwed, but something true also has to be the intended audience's business, at least as far as I understand it(the law here in Oz is similar). So if you were to post on the internet that you're next door neighbor is a transvestite, you could be sued for libel, even if it's true because it's no one's business that he's a transvestite. Essentially just because something is true doesn't mean you should say it. Libertarians like the creators of South Park tend to see this as a travesty of freedom, and it certainly can be if the court takes it that way, but it does provide some protection for privacy which US law simply does not provide. There are the usual exceptions for public figures and politicians (if your member of parliament cheats on his wife it's considered in the public interest where the same information about Joe Blogs from down the street isn't). It's actually quite a reasonable approach to the law IMHO.

    That said of course in this particular case, while IANAL, I would guess that this woman's situation would be the same in the US and the UK as in this context she'd most likely have a right to share this particular information(the performance of a service provider is the business of people interested in hiring said service provider). She'd simply need to prove that her statements were true(most of them anyway, property damage and an incomplete job would probably cover her even if she obviously can't prove the jewelry loss).

  • Re:Was this libel? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Eskarel (565631) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @10:27PM (#42212161)

    It's called an affirmative defense. It works the same way that self defense does in a murder trial. They prove you committed the act, you have to prove you had a right to.

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by murdocj (543661) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @10:50PM (#42212287)

    Reasonable doubt is the level of proof in criminal cases. In civil it's preponderance of evidence.

  • Re:Shrug (Score:5, Informative)

    by Gr33nJ3ll0 (1367543) on Thursday December 06, 2012 @11:18PM (#42212435)
    Honestly, Ghandi slept in the nude with young girls, and had an very intimidate relationship with a woman who was not his wife. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/thrill-of-the-chaste-the-truth-about-gandhis-sex-life-1937411.html [independent.co.uk] Mother Teresa supposedly squandered the money that people donated to her on various things not related to the orphans. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Aplank/Criticisms_of_Mother_Teresa [wikipedia.org]
  • by Entropius (188861) on Friday December 07, 2012 @08:04AM (#42214293)

    So, if you read the WaPo story, it mentions that the defendant is from Fairfax and the contractor/plaintiff is from DC itself. Fairfax, for those who don't know, is in the Northern Virginia area agglomeration of "cities" along I-66 where people who work in the District and don't want to deal with the clusterfuck that is DC live. (Then they only have to deal with the clusterfuck that is commuting to DC, but they can at least live in jurisdictions with saner laws and have decent schools to send their kids to.)

    I have lived in DC for a year, and a relative has lived here for many years. She recently wanted to have some work done on her house, and caught the contractor shooting speedballs (heroin/cocaine) in her bathroom, then running up and down the stairs and onto the roof while under the effects. This didn't surprise me, really, at all; given how much of *that* goes on, I don't doubt the allegations are true.

    This town is a shithole, and it's a shithole full of people who will sue anyone at the drop of a hat for anything, or really take any opportunity to get ahead at someone else's expense, fair or not. "Slit Grandma's throat for a nickel" isn't just an exaggeration around here. The phone books have a "You could sue a doctor and make a pile of money! Call us!" ads on the spine; there are ambulance-chaser billboards all over; etc.

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