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Don't be Such a Critic: Negative Online Reviews can Cost You

Learn how your online reviews could get you in trouble and how you can protect yourself from a costly legal battle.

In today’s highly connected world, everyone’s a critic. Literally. From Angie’s List to Yelp, and Google+ to Trip Advisor, the Internet provides an endless number of forums for sharing opinions and reviews. No matter what you want to review (from dog walkers to doughnut shops), there is a site—or three—where it is possible to share your opinion. For many people, these virtual forums provide the freedom to be candid, or even outrageous.  

But before you post (or Yelp or Tweet), remember that there are real risks to being an online critic. While most online chatter is protected under the First Amendment, false allegations and unproven claims can get you in trouble. If you post a particularly negative review of a local business, for example, the business owner could come after you for defamation. While most auto, renter and homeowner’s policies include some level of personal injury protection, this protection usually does not extend to defamation and the like. That means that if you are found guilty of harming someone’s reputation, you could be on the hook for all damages.   

Does this mean you should keep your opinions to yourself, or at least offline? Not at all. It just means you need to understand what might get you in trouble and how you can protect yourself.

Safe Online Review TipsWhy online reviews matter

There is a reason business owners care about online reviews: People read them, and they believe them. In fact, a 2012 Nielsen survey found that online consumer reviews are the second most-trusted source of brand information, with 70% of global consumers indicating they trust online reviews[1]. And research by a Harvard Business School professor found that even a one-star increase in a Yelp rating leads to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue[2].  

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that businesses are willing to fight to protect their reputations; and increasingly, they’re doing so in the courts. In one high-profile case, a Washington, DC-based contractor filed a defamation lawsuit against a Virginia woman, alleging that her scathing online review resulted in a significant loss of business. He sought $750,000 in damages. In 2014, a jury found that the review did amount to defamation. However, because the jury found that the contractor’s online replies also amounted to defamation, no damages were awarded to either side.

In another highly publicized case, a Colorado man was sued for defamation after he gave a flooring company a bad review on Yelp. The case was eventually settled out of court, but it still cost the reviewer $65,000 in legal fees according to news reports.

Play it safe

If you are going to post an online review, remember to stick to the facts, don’t overstate your views and always express your thoughts as opinions. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and say: “This hotel is infested and run by crooks!” When all you need to say is: “We found roaches in the bathroom and we felt the management was not appropriately concerned.” Make sure you phrase all comments as your opinion and be prepared to back up any potentially damaging claims with evidence. 

If you are a frequent online reviewer, you may also want to consider adding an umbrella policy to your homeowner’s or renters insurance. An umbrella policy kicks in when you reach the limit on the liability coverage in your homeowners or renters policy; and most importantly, it also covers you for libel. Coverage limits often range from $1 million to $10 million and carry an additional monthly fee. If you have teenagers in your house, remember that you are also responsible for their online actions. An umbrella policy could protect you from libel claims brought against anyone living in your home.

Keep in mind, an umbrella policy does not give you the freedom to write outrageous reviews; and if you are found guilty of deliberate defamation, your insurer could refuse coverage.

To learn more about how an umbrella policy could help you Yelp, contact your HUB representative.

1. Global Consumers' Trust in 'Earned' Advertising Grows in Importance. Nielsen, 4/10/2012.

2. Reviews, Reputation, and Revenue: The Case of Luca, Michael, Harvard Business School Working Paper, 9/16/2011.