As a business owner, it goes without saying that your reputation is critically important. With a positive reputation in the community, your chances of more referrals, potential leads, positive reviews, and other prospects increase substantially.

With the prevalence of online reviews on well-known platforms such as Google, online reviews are seen by more potential customers than ever before. And this applies to all professions and industries, including medical practices, law firms, and even houses of worship (i.e., churches, synagogues, etc.). On top of this, research has shown that over 90 percent of people regularly or occasionally read online reviews, and 84 percent trust these online reviews.[1] So, online reviews are a valuable source of new business and must be taken seriously.

What happens when you receive a poor online review, and particularly one that appears to cross the line from a dissatisfied customer to a below-the-belt attack? Can something be done legally? The answer is not always clear, as the online review must be carefully analyzed to determine whether it may be defamatory.

What Florida Law Says About Defamation

Under Florida law, the elements of defamation are (1) the defendant published a false statement, (2) about the plaintiff, (3) to a third party, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result.[2] Notably, certain types of defamatory statements are so egregious that they are referred to as “defamation per se.” They include:

  • Statements made about a person committing a felony;
  • Statements made about a person having a disease;
  • Statements made that a person is unfit for business; and,
  • Statements asserting a woman has been unchaste.

These types of statements are considered to be so damaging that plaintiffs do not have to prove damages – they are presumed.

Importantly, opinions of facts are not defamatory. For example, if an online reviewer states that he had “a bad experience,” this would generally not be actionable. A couple of real-life examples help provide guidance.

In a 2016 case, Blake v. Ann-Marie Giustibelli, P.A., an attorney’s former client and the former client’s husband posted several, negative online reviews of the client’s former lawyer. The lawyer filed suit and won at trial. In fact, the court awarded the lawyer $350,000 for punitive damages. The client and her former husband appealed, arguing their statements were pure opinion and thus not actionable. However, the appellate court disagreed, noting that the online reviews contained verifiably false facts, including that the lawyer lied to the client regarding the attorney’s fee.

Recently, I was retained to represent a business that received multiple, negative online reviews. The reviews were patently false and despicable and fell into the defamation per se category. I filed a lawsuit and also sought an immediate court hearing to stop the online reviewer from posting further defamatory reviews. Thankfully, the lawsuit prompted early settlement discussions and the case was brought to a close. But most importantly, the online reviewer agreed to remove his defamatory online reviews.

What Can You Do To Protect Your Business From Poor Reviews?

Well, what do you do when you receive a poor online review? The first step is to take immediate action. This is because the online review is not going anywhere. The longer the online review sits, the more likely it will be seen by prospective customers. Nonetheless, the review, of course, may not be defamatory and so the best response may be to address the reviewer and his complaints directly. There are a number of online resources that help business owners on how to handle poor online reviews.

But if the review crosses the line and appears to be defamatory, or if you not sure whether the online review is defamatory or not, contact a lawyer who handles defamation cases to help determine whether the online review is defamatory. If the review is defamatory, most lawyers will initially send a cease and desist letter, which is a letter requesting the defamatory review be removed without litigation. If the cease and desist letter is not effective, then litigation is likely the only remaining option.

If you received a negative online review and are concerned the review may be defamatory, call today for your free case evaluation. It would be my pleasure to speak with you about your legal options and help pick the best course of action.

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[2] When defamation is spoken, it is called slander. When defamation is in writing (such as online reviews) it is called libel.