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Can a Business Sue Customers Who Leave Negative Reviews Online?

Your business is important to you, and the fact that people have been leaving negative reviews on your website is infuriating. Half of the people writing reviews are people you've never offered services to or seen in your office.

While many people think that writing a negative review is their right, it doesn't necessarily mean that the business has to sit there and accept it. In fact, you may be able to sue for defamation if reviewers publish false or malicious comments.

Are You Able to Sue Over Negative Reviews?

The answer to this question is, "maybe." There is no federal statute to prevent suing over a negative review. Suing in this way is often called a SLAPP lawsuit, or "strategic lawsuit against public participation."

While some states don't allow SLAPP lawsuits, not all of them are that restrictive. In Colorado, for example, House Bill 19-1324 does create some anti-SLAPP protections. Defendants can file special motions to dismiss cases if they think that the case is a frivolous SLAPP lawsuit. However, there are still times when a lawsuit could be allowed when true defamation, harassment or other issues are at play.

Customers are not allowed to defame a business by posting inaccurate accusations. For example, if you're a medical provider and a customer posts that you're unlicensed, that could severely hurt your business and is not a fact. They assert that you're unlicensed as if it is true, which is the problem. A false statement of fact is not protected by a right to free speech, which may open the door for you to pursue a lawsuit.

More business owners have been actively challenging the notion that bad reviews of a business fall under First Amendment protections. Less-than-desirable reviews of a Virginia-based contractor led to an internet defamation suit when an unhappy customer complained about work performed in her home. Another company sought to keep negative reviews under wraps by citing a hidden non-disparagement clause in agreements signed by now-dissatisfied customers.

While defamation typically points to false claims that ultimately hurt one's reputation, non-disparagement is a murkier subject. Non-disparagement clauses are typically concerned with any type of criticism, even if it is valid and truthful. Although in the above case a host of misdeeds ultimately led to this company's claim being disregarded, more and more businesses are using tactics like these to prevent disgruntled customers from making themselves heard.

How Can You Sue a Negative Reviewer Correctly?

To make sure that your business has the evidence to back up your claim of defamation, you should be thorough in showing why the published material is likely to cause financial losses. Take screenshots of the comments online and be able to link those to the party that you're suing.

You will need to show a loss of income as a result of the defamation. You can do this by showing a drop in scheduled appointments or income. You'll want to have examples of your schedule and income before the defamation as well as after, so that you can prove that the defamation is what caused the sudden drop and negative impact on your business. Your attorney can help you with this and make sure you're suing only when you have the right to do so for defamation.

Other Factors to Remember in Dealing with Negative Reviews

In addition to possibly filing a lawsuit, there are also some other things a business can do to counter negative reviews. Entrepreneur recommends taking a diplomatic approach. When offering a response to negative feedback, business spokespersons are urged to remain professional and civil no matter what. An angry or aggressive tone will serve to only anger dissatisfied customers even further, and these interactions may turn off those new to a business. In most cases, it's best to conduct responses in the same manner one would offer face-to-face customers service.

Lastly, suing over a negative review does not need to be the first action considered. Diplomatic communication with the person who left the negative review may resolve the issue on its own. Some persons who leave negative reviews are simply looking for help and acknowledgment from the company they left the review for in the first place. Addressing their concerns can sometimes result in the person removing the negative review. But if that can't be accomplished, and there is concern that you and your business have been inaccurately described in an online negative review, then you may want to speak with an experienced attorney.

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