Monday, January 27, 2014

Major "defamatory review" lawsuit by a contractor against a former customer goes on trial today in northern Virginia

A major case in Fairfax County, VA went to trial today (Monday), and may have an impact on review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List. 
The case is between Christopher Dietz, a contractor, and Jane Perez.  The latest story seems to be in the Washington Post, by Justin Jounvenal, over a suit by Dietz demanding $750000, link here
It is difficult or even impossible to determine from the news stories who is factually correct, but the fact pattern reported in news accounts is rather intricate and obviously could damage the contractor’s reputation permanently.  Truth is a defense to libel, but in practice the threat of having to defend oneself against ill-founded suits could deter many people from reviewing companies online, so there is a risk that contractors can bully customers into silence. Some people would say these are SLAPP suits, as I noted in an Oct. 13, 2013 posting about an ACLU gathering in Alexandria, VA.  One observation to bear in mind is that a civil case is determined by a preponderance of the evidence (51%), not “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
The civil complaint is worth reading, here.
It’s possible for the threat of loss and cost of defense to create financial, credit, or even security clearance problems for a defendant in such cases.
ABC News has a report dated Dec. 7, here

Apparently negative reviews were posted on both Yelp and Angie’s List. Perez is reported to have countersued (amount not specified in the media). 
Forbes has a balanced account, with some advice to consumers writing reviews, Jan 7, in a piece by Caroline Meyer.

Local contractors are probably much more affected by bad reviews than are huge companies.  The issues (free speech, online reputation, defamation law as it has developed) have very different impacts on small businesses and individuals in the digital age, where digital reputation lasts forever. Apparently Perez, a retired Air Force officer, has found that the litigation affects her job hunt and clearances, according to the WJLA report tday.  
This is apparently not the same case as Hadeed, discussed Jan. 9 in conjucntion with anonymous reviews, not an issue in this case.
I don’t personally post reviews on Yelp or Angies List, but I do belong to Angies as a member.  There is a dispute with one contractor who charged much more than an insurance company would pay after the 2012 derecho for some roof damage.  However, this sort of problem may be more likely when there is massive damage in an area and a homeowner needs work done quickly. 
As a general rule, I tend not to discuss incidents or disputes of economic significance if they are still open. On the other hand, discussion of the factual (especially chronological and “forensic”) details of past incidents where harm occurred can be helpful and very illuminating for others.  

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