Defamation on Yelp?

CNET has a lengthy piece about a Yelp user who wrote a negative review about a Chiropractor and is now being sued for defamation:

San Franciscan Christopher Norberg went to a chiropractor after being injured in a car accident in 2006. After a disagreement with the chiropractor over billing, he posted a negative review of the business on Yelp suggesting that the doctor was dishonest. Now he is facing a defamation lawsuit that could chill self-expression on the popular gripe Web site.

An earlier article on the Consumerist blog offers the verbatim statements in dispute. Here’s the discussion on Yelp about the litigation and the claims.

Here’s the concise definition of defamation: A false statement that injures someone’s reputation and exposes him to public contempt, hatred, ridicule, or condemnation.

Here’s a quick statement of the legal test for defamation:

  1. False statement of fact (not opinion)
  2. Communicated to third parties
  3. Harmful to the reputation of the person the statement concerns

A simple example is:

  • I think John is a terrible person (not defamatory)
  • John is a child molester (defamatory if he is in fact not one and it hurts his reputation).

Yelp is not a defendant. This is really about whether the defendant was expressing “facts” or “opinions” and whether the particular Chiropractor was in fact harmed. The guy has lots of positive reviews on Yelp, but the controversy might turn some people away.

Another issue is whether the “culture of reviews” would be harmed if the defendant were found liable. It remains to be seen but my guess is no unless there was lots of press coverage and publicity around such a decision. Even so, it would probably only affect people who are marginal contributors.

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8 Responses to “Defamation on Yelp?”

  1. David Mihm Says:

    Hmm, seems like much ado about pretty much nothing to me…although the review is not written very well, it doesn’t seem to me like the sentiments are that out-of-bounds from a million other negative reviews on the internet.

    I can’t imagine that the courts would want to set a precedent that every case like this has merit…they would be opening a HUGE can of worms.

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    Agree re the implications. However there’s tension between the “precedent” issue and doing “justice” in any particular case.

  3. Rich Rosen Says:

    I am a bit surprised that this is news. From what I understand law suits are pretty typical at most consumer sites.

    That said, I am glad you are putting good use to that legal degree. Well done.

  4. Review Defamation Suit Settled « Screenwerk Says:

    [...] Defamation Suit Settled By Greg Sterling Just like that the “Yelp Defamation Lawsuit” (Yelp wasn’t a defendant) was settled according to Elinor Mills at CNET: “This [...]

  5. Yelp CEO Pushes Back Against Recent Critiques « Screenwerk Says:

    [...] of those from callers to the public radio show I participated in recently about the now-settled defamation suit involving a review on Yelp  (Yelp wasn’t a defendant). Stoppelman explains:  While we [...]

  6. MSG Says:

    Invasion of privacy is something not covered in these defamation lessons. Even though what you say about someone is true and thus not defamatory, it could be an invasion of privacy. If he or she is not a public figure, then what you say about them, even if true, could result in a lawsuit. For example, disclosing the STD status of your ex might not be defamatory, but it could be an invasion of privacy. Just be aware of that, and speak the truth, and you have nothing to fear.

  7. Greg Sterling Says:

    Yes . . . perhaps. But if the information is about their business or the conduct of their services there won’t be a privacy invasion.

  8. tamara dailey Says:

    My main concern is that I received a one star review from a Yelper who has over 15 comments posted on Yelp.
    and the second of 2 comments where related to a person (5 star) who has written seven reviews for Yelp. The people that have been filtered have posted only one review, but they were positive and mostly 5 star. Yelp insists that they are doing nothing wrong. As long as they continue to post the one star rating and filtering the 4-5 star ratings, I can not carry on much longer. Yelp has single handly destroyed my business by about $1,500/month. Further more, Yelp has changed the first person to review me and has posted the bogus one star listing person as the first reviewer.

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