FOX19 Investigates: Consumers sued for online reviews

Published: May. 2, 2013 at 2:16 PM EDT|Updated: May. 9, 2013 at 3:43 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A federal judge in Covington is offering new insights into the rising number of consumers being sued for online reviews they've left after, they claim, having bad experiences with doctors, restaurants, and even eBay sellers.

"I went for many years without having a libel case, but I've had about five or six of them in the last couple years," Judge William O. Bertelsman recently said. "There is a defense that it's an opinion, but the opinion has to be based on facts."

FOX19 has learned the number of online defamation cases is growing so rapidly that a law firm inside Great American Tower now specializes in it.

"Well, I get all sorts of cases," said Whitney Gibson, the Vorys law firm partner who leads the unit. "I get cases where a company has a competitor that's gone on and posed as a disgruntled customer in order to try and damage their profits and their reputation."

Gibson says he learns their real identity after serving a subpoena on Internet providers who, with a judge's approval, must turn over the IP address of the competitor responsible for the deception. Gibson, who represents clients from New York to California, says he only takes cases where someone has left untrue comments. He won't represent a company that's just trying to get negative, truthful reviews deleted.

It doesn't have to be a business either. The Steubenville rape case even led to a defamation lawsuit. A boy who took the infamous photo of two football players holding the rape victim by the wrists and ankles was not indicted in the case. He sued an Ohio blogger and 25 commenters, accusing them of tying him to the crime and hurting his reputation. Both sides eventually settled out of court. The blogger allowed the boy to write a post in which he said he was not at the home when the rape occurred and that the photo was from an earlier party.

In Chicago, Dr. Jay Pensler, a plastic surgeon, sued three patients who weren't happy with the results. One had written a review claiming Dr. Pensler left her with "Frankenstein breasts." The surgeon asked the court for $100,000 from each former patient but eventually dropped the suits, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.

When FOX19 asked Cincinnati contractor Kirk Metz if he'd ever sue a customer over a bad online review, he couldn't believe that was an option some people actually pursue.

"Never, never. Everyone has their right to their opinion," said Metz. "And if they want to comment and that affects my grade on Angie's List then that's part of the system, that's part of Angie's List's program."

Metz has quite a reputation on Angie's List, where a green ribbon shows he's won the "Super Service Award" for the past three years. But even with such a high number of "A" grades, Metz hasn't been able to make everyone happy. He doesn't take them to court, though. He just adds his own comments below the negative review.

"I'm just, I'm honest. In my comments, I just tell them exactly what happened whether it's good or bad," Metz said. "And I just let it go from there."

Honesty is the most important ingredient when leaving negative reviews for a company or professional, too, according to attorneys.

"Don't lie," said Gibson. "Don't say things that are factually inaccurate. I think it's ok, I think you'd be fine to assert opinions online."

As they say, the truth is an absolute defense when you're accused of defamation. But as one attorney told FOX19, professionals and businesses with deep pockets can file a lawsuit against you to try to intimidate you into deleting your comments. Are you willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars in court to prove you were telling the truth? That's a quandary facing more and more consumers who may not have thought twice about posting their views online until there was a knock at their door followed by someone standing there handing them a piece of paper saying, "You've been served."