POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – Yelp has added a brand new legal alert to the Yelp page of Superior Moving & Storage, making it the second business in the U.S. to receive the so-called legal threats alert.
The Pompano Beach-based moving company was the subject of a Call Christina investigation in 2015.
In Scott Hooton's opinion, his experience with Superior Moving and Storage went sour, so he took to the internet, posting a one-star review and never imaging what would happen next.
"They sued me," Hooton said in disbelief. "Served me papers right here on my porch."
The company filed a defamation suit seeking damages in excess of $15,000.
The Call Christina team uncovered that challenging online reviews in court is a tactic Superior Moving & Storage has used before.
The Pompano Beach-based moving company behind the suit claimed the statements made online were false.
"We don't just file lawsuits," company attorney Michael Manes told the Call Christina team. "Opinions are not actionable. Sometimes you say things that you don't mean because you're angry, and they say things that are just not true."
That was in 2015, when Yelp had already issued a consumer alert about Superior Moving & Storage. The alert stated that a number of positive reviews for the company originated from the same IP address. The alert states that "someone may be trying to artificially inflate the rating for this business."
NEW CONSUMER ALERT:
Just last week, Yelp added a new consumer alert to Superior Moving & Storage's Yelp page.
It reads: "Consumer Alert: Questionable Legal Threats.This business may be trying to abuse the legal system in an effort to stifle free speech, including issuing questionable legal threats against reviewers. As a reminder, reviewers who share their experiences have a First Amendment right to express their opinions on Yelp."
They are the second business in the U.S. to receive the alert. The first was Prestigious Pets in Dallas.
"We felt that there needed to be a consumer alert on this page to inform our users that they may be threatened with a lawsuit if they write a negative review about this business," said Laurent Crenshaw, director of public policy at Yelp.
In a post entitled, "Legal challenges over online reviews seek to separate fact from fiction," American Bar Association (ABA) Journal writer Julianne Hill stated, "As online reviews grow in influence, a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game is evolving. Sellers of everything from dental services to books reach for those all-important five-star rankings, and sometimes cross legal boundaries to gain unfair competitive advantages and keep their online images sparkling."
"Fifteen years ago, online reviews were not a major component of people's buying habits or their purchasing decisions," Crenshaw said. "Now, they are. Nearly 70 percent of people that use the Internet use online reviews before they make a purchase and so along with that increased trust in online reviews has come this decision by a small percentage of business owners to attempt to use litigation or bad clauses in contracts to influence consumer perception."
Just last year, Florida passed legislation to better protect you from what are called SLAPPs or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
"It doesn't change the standards for defamation and for libel or slander," Crenshaw said. "It just says that if you believe what you said is true and you defend it in court, that you can get your attorney's fees reimbursed to you if you end up on the right side."
Crenshaw said on a federal level Yelp has been, "supporting legislation to protect our users from those SLAPPs that I mentioned earlier, those strategic lawsuits against public participation, and also against gag clauses in consumer form contracts."
In a written statement Manes stated, "Superior does not abuse the legal system, but has only sought to protect its good reputation when someone posts false and defamatory statements."
After our story aired, Hooton retained an attorney and his case was voluntarily dismissed.
Experts said the key to avoiding a lawsuit based on what you write online is to speak the truth.
"The First Amendment protects free speech, but it protects truthful free speech," legal expert David S. Weinstein said. "The truth never changes. Don't inflate it. Don't make it any better than it is, don't make it any worse than it is; just be truthful about it."