On the internet everyone is a critic. Sites like Yelp, Angie's List, Google Plus, and other platforms regularly offer people an opportunity to express how they feel about a business and describe what kind of experiences they've had. What all of these sites have in common, however, is a lack of any kind of warning about the risks that come along with leaving a negative customer review.
People posting reviews online are typically seeking an outlet to describe what they may perceive to be a warning to other potential buyers, but they may not realize the inherent downside in that 1 star Yelp review. Negative reviews may result in decreased business for the company receiving the critique and could also damage that company's reputation. That damage is actionable. A number of people have been sued by private companies for writing derogatory comments about their customer experiences. A contractor in Virginia sued (and won) a judgment against a Virginia woman who accused him of billing her for work he didn't actually perform and possibly stealing her jewelry. The court in that case ordered her to re-write her online review on Angie's List. That decision was later reversed, but the angry customer may still be liable for monetary damages.
Writing a review online that is false, misleading, or embarrassing could open you up to a different type of liability as well: defamation. This cause of action is very broad and typically difficult to defend against. So what's the moral to the story? Is it really worth it to vent your frustrations online about a bad experience with a business? The website hosting your review is immune from civil liability under federal law, but you aren't. If you are going to post an online review, please make sure that your review is at the very least truthful and free of embellishment.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a citation because of your online comments about a business, make sure you receive sound legal counsel about how to respond to the lawsuit and what steps to take to protect yourself from further liability. If you're a business who has been damaged by a customer's review online, you also need to talk to a lawyer to determine what exactly your rights are. The internet has brought with it a very powerful tool for transparency and accountability in the market place, but that tool (like every tool) has its risks. Buyers beware! Businesses be warned!