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Online criticism sparks real world defamation lawsuit

Since then, a one-star review on Yelp.com shows up first when you search the company, and it calls owner Michael Rassel a “scam liar and complete weirdo.”

So this month, Rassel filed a defamation lawsuit against the customer, Roy Gonzales, bringing to Sarasota a growing threat that a critical review can land disgruntled customers in court.

More and more people are using the Internet to research companies and to post reviews — praise or grievances, justly or unjustly — that can reach potential customers on a wide scale.

But few realize it could cost them, as more businesses use lawsuits to fight back, says Marc Randazza, a Las Vegas attorney who defends online defamation cases in Florida and across the nation.

“The day you get served with a defamation suit, whether you’re right or wrong, you just lost $20,000 minimum,” Randazza said. “Most defamation defendants are blindsided by it.”

Defamation suits to silence online critics have increased in Florida since 2008, when a Florida Supreme Court ruling and a lack of a law protecting consumers makes suits harder and more costly to defend, Randazza said.

In the Sarasota case, Rassel says the rants against him are flat out wrong, an attempt from the customer to pressure him into doing extra work for free.

But Rassel also says the one man’s reviews are killing business for him — a 70 percent drop in income.

“They see something like this on the first page of Google, they’re gone, they’re not even going to give me a second thought,” Rassel said.

And there is another entry on ripoffreport.com from the same disgruntled customer, calling Rassel a “low-life cheat” and implores readers not to hire him.

The impact was immediate, Rassel says. Potential clients started disappearing, clients that were lined up prior to the rant suddenly changed their mind.

“My business has been violated,” Rassel said. “I’ve spent 10 years building this business locally, for someone like this to just come along and post something that sounds like a drunken sailor.”

Gonzales could not be reached for comment on his comments or the lawsuits. His Yelp.com profile shows he has written hyper-critical reviews of two other companies, a Fort Myers car dealership and an insurance company. Each time he begs readers to stay away.

Gonzales does have one positive review, however, saying his wife likes the salads at Rico’s Pizza in Sarasota.

To be defamation in Florida, the review must not be an opinion, but include facts that are untrue and damaging to someone’s reputation, said Sarasota attorney Robert Turffs, who is representing Rassel.

“You can say I didn’t like him, he did a lousy job, you can say that all day long,” Turffs said. “Once you say this guy took money from me and didn’t perform, that’s a lie.”

Companies like Yelp are protected from lawsuits because they are providing a platform. It is the reviewer who is responsible for what is said, attorneys say.

Yelp asks reviewers to write honestly and stand behind their reviews, and tells businesses to engage constructively with customers who have not had a positive experience.

A Yelp spokesperson said the company expects “users to feel free to air their opinions, but not to exaggerate or misrepresent their experiences.”

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About the author

Adryenn Ashley

Adryenn Ashley is the mediagenic founder of Wow! Is Me. As an award winning filmmaker and actress she is used to transforming herself and others into riveting onscreen characters. Now she uses her well honed techniques to transform everyday entrepreneurs into wildly successful business celebrities. As a mentor to CEOs worldwide, she is directly responsible for adding significant revenue to her client's bottom line. For information on how you can work with Adryenn Ashley, go to http://wowisme.net.

Permanent link to this article: http://yelp-sucks.com/online-criticism-sparks-real-world-defamation-lawsuit.html

8 comments

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  1. michele h

    I am an Interior Designer for a High end furniture store…I have worked 29 yrs to build my good reputation and I work on straight commission. This lady posted a yelp experience and warned people to "watch out for Michelle". The problem is, there are 2 Michele's. I am not the one she had a problem with, but no one will know this and this will affect my reputation and income. Ive already had 2 people contact me and ask me about it.
    I contacted the yelper and explained and she doesn't care and wont remove or adjust her post. Yelp also refuses to remove it. What can I do. this is so unfair….its really a form of cyber bullying

    1. Rachel

      Hi Michelle

      I have the same problem in my case I am being cyber bullied and this woman is using Yelp as another avenue to bully me. She emails me telling me I'm fat and ugly and stating she knows I have no business. The police are now involved. Then I find this false review she wrote about me. She said I stole furniture from her, broker her air conditioning all false claims and accusations. She tried to get away with not paying me, and coercing me into committing insurance fraud. This woman needed new airconditioners and wanted me to put them on my insurance so I get paid then she would keep my furniture for 2 months for rent. I said no. So she refused to pay me, so I sued her. I cannot break someone's air conditioner. I'm a home stager! I don't touch air conditioners ever especially when they are central air and located somewhere outside behind bushes.

  2. Daniel A Bernath

    http://www.aspecialdayguide.com/shyster/Anthony%2
    Yelp sued as Employer of writer employees. Adryenn, have you given any thought to who might want to talk to me about Yelp's right to control them?

    1. yelp-sucks.com

      I do have a few people. One in particular, was a Yelp Elite, then got deleted. As did all her work. That was 5 years ago though, beyond the statute of limitations I think. And not sure she wants to burden her brand with that now… still flipping through the rolodex.

  3. Dave

    I'm having a problem someone keeps flagging my good reviews it's like they are watching my profile. any suggestions

    1. Adryenn Ashley

      It's likely that is true. Not sure how you would catch them doing it. I don't think there is an IP tracker on the back end in business tools but that might be a good upgrade for Yelp to make. If they are so serious about "real review" and "real people" then allowing a business owner to know the ip address of the person who wrote the review, or flagged it would make creeps less likely to post false reviews, or at least make it harder. Like I can see everyone's ip address here, I have plugins that block bots, and proxy masking sites, and a host of other bad behavior. They should implement that. As for what you can do, even if the review is flagged if there isn't anything wrong with it, the flag just makes it reviewed by a human (supposedly), not removed or filtered.

  4. Sara

    Hi Adryenn,
    I had 5 amazing reviews on yelp..all but one to be filtered. I felt bad for my clients having taken time to write this, but also how it makes my business appear. I went to the "about yelp" section and there on number 8 it states the following: Yelp has an automated filter that suppresses a small portion of reviews – it targets those suspicious ones you see on other sites.
    the comment it targets those suspicious ones makes it appear that my business reviews are fraudulant. Has ANYONE filed a class action based on defamation and libel? just wondering…. Sara

    1. Adryenn Ashley

      They've already earned a court decision that they can't be held liable for the actions of their filter and they are allowed to display the reviews however they see fit. What can be gone after is the functionality of the filter vs their stated use of the filter. That hasn't been challenged yet.

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