Eater did a good job of summarizing the recent case against a Yelp user found guilty of defamation for posting fraudulently negative reviews. The case amounted to “nothing done,” as the plaintiff in the case was also found guilty of defamation, and the two rulings effectively cancelled each other out. Still, the case sets something of a precedent for Yelpers, who have heretofore enjoyed a kind of protection racket against small businesses.
For restaurant owners, the racket can consume a lot of time. Owners and managers have to contact angry Yelpers and essentially bribe them into changing their reviews. It’s not pretty, but it’s all part of doing business these days.
Now, in light of the ruling against the Virginia Yelper, restaurants could seek libel charges instead.
A bigger question is whether the blame lies with Yelp, or with its users, but the company has thus far managed to deny its culpability for its users’ potential calumny.
Successful rulings against Yelp and Yelpers tend to arise when the reviews are outright fraudulent, such as when a reviewer writes about a business he never even patronized, or when people create sock puppet accounts to assassinate a business’ rating via phony reviews. But, sooner or later, some judge is going to have to recognize the fact that Yelp reviews have a serious and real impact on business, and that reviewers who abuse the public forum have to be held to similar standards as professional journalists.
Ruth Reichl, in Garlic and Sapphires, recounts an anecdote where she referred to a very nice restaurant’s antique decor as “ersatz.” The Times had to print a correction after the restaurant’s owner threatened to sue based on the fact that his antiques were genuine, and provably so, and Reichl’s comment could have constituted libel, however slight. A defamatory statement would have to be both damaging to the business, and untrue. But at what point are the opinions of Yelpers subject to that distinction?
Comparing negative Yelp reviews can illuminate. Consider a review for Great Wall, a cheap Chinese takeout joint in North Park, where the angry Yelper opens with, “Me no likey! Me no likey!” and continues with, “Their food looks like meat stewed in hospital waste, and smells like a Chinaman's vomit.”
Offensive? Yes. Libelous? Probably not. The user’s statements, however racist, represent her opinions. The First Amendment protects her right to deride Chinese culture for the sake of proving a point.
Consider a different review, this time for Hong Kong, a similar restaurant in Hillcrest. The Yelper in question ("M M") says, “avoid like the plague….cause you’ll probably get that there too.” "M M" also alleges that Hong Kong’s food made him sick and gave him “the shits.”
Hong Kong restaurant probably doesn’t care about that, but if that were a review of, say Mille Fleurs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see ownership take action. Accusing a restaurant of causing illness is a serious matter, especially without proof of the infecting agent. A food poisoning scare, which later proved to be false, killed Chi Chi’s restaurant. Pitching around, “this place made me sick,” or any variant thereof, without proof, is serious business.
For the record, Hong Kong is the better restaurant...but that's just the opinion of one restaurant critic!