POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - Local 10 News viewer Scott Hooton claims he was sued for posting a negative online business review.
The Pompano Beach-based moving company behind the suit claims the statements made online were false and have sued Hooton for damages related to defamation.
The Call Christina team uncovered that challenging online reviews in court is a tactic Superior Moving & Storage has used before.
Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez spoke with the company's attorney and a legal expert on how to avoid being slapped with a defamation suit while exercising your first amendment right to complain.
"The First Amendment protects free speech, but it protects truthful free speech. You still can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater if there's no fire in a crowded theater," legal expert David S. Weinstein said.
"Like anybody that doesn't move a lot, get on the Internet, look at what's there on the reviews and you pick two or three and you get quotes, and that's we did. We got quotes from three companies -- they were the cheapest," Hooton said about how he made contact with Superior Moving & Storage.
Hooton said the experience with the moving company went sour and he took to the Internet to express his displeasure, posting a one star review, never imagining what would happen next.
"They sued me. Served papers right here on this porch," Hooton said.
The suit is seeking damages of excess of $15,000 for defamation related to what the company calls "false statements" made by Hooton in his online posting.
"His lawyer offered to settle," Hooton said.
The power of online reviews and speaking the truth
It is no secret that online reviews can have a significant impact on a company.
Challenging a customer's review in court is a tactic the Pompano Beach-based company has used before. In case after case, the action is for damages for defamation. In one they challenged what a customer told the Better Business Bureau, and in another for what was posted on Yelp.
"We don't just file lawsuits," company attorney Michael Manes said. "That's not really what it's about. The lawsuit only comes after there are numerous efforts with the publisher, when I say the publisher, the person that actually makes the post online, to try and ask them to remove it or correct it. Opinions are not actionable. We don't take action because somebody says, 'We had a bad experience. We didn't like the mover.' That's not what does it."
So what brings upon a lawsuit such as this? According to former state and federal prosecutor David Weinstein, it is when you misrepresent the facts.
"Truth is an absolute defense. So if what the consumer is saying is not untrue, and it's a truthful statement, they have every right to make that statement and make it in a public forum. But remember, it has to be the absolute truth."
About companies suing publishers of reviews for defamation Weinstein stated: "It's a reaction that's in place by companies trying to protect their reputations. But again, if you receive bad service at a restaurant, if you enter into a contract with someone to move your personal possessions and they don't uphold their end of the bargain, you have a first amendment right to complain about that."
The best way to avoid a potential defamation suit is to speak the truth states Weinstein.
"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," Weinstein said. "Don't go too far overboard. Say what it was. If you had a bad experience with them, be aware that somebody is going to read that, that they're going to dig at every single detail about what you wrote and look for one nugget that's not the truth. So just be truthful about what it was. If your waiter wasn't helpful to you but your food was good, put both the good and the bad there."
"Sometimes you say things that you don't mean because you're angry," Manes said. "And they say things that are just not true."
Superior Moving & Storage has an A-rating with the Better Business Bureau.
State records show in all but three of the 11 complaints filed with state regulators since 2012 the company has resolved the consumer complaints "satisfactory."
SUPERIOR MOVING & STORAGE, INC.
2055 BLOUNT RD, POMPANO BEACH, FL 33069-5110
License Type License# Issued Expires Status
Intrastate Mover IM492 01/02/03 01/02/16 Registered
Complaint History 2012 2013 2014 2015
Closed Referred to other Agency 0 2 0 0
Closed Satisfactory 1 2 3 2
Closed Unsatisfactorily 1 0 0 0
Mediation unsuccessful w/business 0 0 0 0
It is a time frame when Manes said the company executed more than 10,000 moves.
As for Hooton, he's sticking by what he wrote in his posting.
"I believe I am doing a service to the people that are going to look for reviews to avoid this, and to me, number one: it is very accurate of my experience and number two: it is my opinion of my experience and it is based on facts," Hooton said.
Now it will be up for a court to decide. Hooton told Local 10 News he has declined the company's latest settlement offer.
Yelp consumer alert
Meantime, Yelp issued a consumer alert about Superior Moving & Storage. The alert states that a number of positive reviews for the Pompano Beach-based business originated from the same IP address. The alert states that "someone may be trying to artificially inflate the rating for this business."
"Yelp works hard to protect freedom of speech, and we believe all Internet users have the right to express their opinions about truthful experiences online," Yelp said in a statement Wednesday. "Litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. What's more, courts have consistently ruled that consumers have the right to share their truthful experiences and opinions."
"Businesses who sue their customers in an effort to silence them rather than address their comments often bring additional unwanted attention to the original criticism," the statement continued. "Yelp's Terms of Service and Content Guidelines state that reviews must be factually correct, so reviewers are free to air their opinions, but should not exaggerate or misrepresent their experience."
In an email to Local 10 News, Manes said they believe the alert is retaliation for the company's decision to discontinue advertising and maintaining a Yelp page in the face of increased costs and fees.
"Superior Moving & Storage was a paid advertiser with Yelp for many years. During those paid years, he maintained a "5 Star Rating" while paying substantial fees for advertisement and web presence," Manes said. "When my client decided to discontinue advertising and maintaining a Yelp Page due to consistent increases in the fees and costs imposed on his business by Yelp, his rating suddenly dropped. Shortly after, Yelp began removing many of his 5 Star reviews stating they had violated Yelp's terms, and only publishing negative reviews."
"The reputation Yelp projects about Superior Moving & Storage is the opposite of consumer protection sites, such as BBB, where my client maintains an 'A-' rating, the Florida Department of Agriculture where my client has only had 11 complaints out of over 10,000 moves in a 4-year span, or Consumer Affairs in Broward, Dade, and Palm Beach Counties, where complaints are scarce," Manes said.
Superior Moving and Storage is just one of several companies nationwide who have accused Yelp of harpooning their reviews or standing after refusing Yelp's paid services.
A restaurant owner in Portland, Maine claims Yelp manipulated reviews after he declined to buy ads.
"There has never been any amount of money a business can pay Yelp to manipulate reviews," Yelp said in a statement. "Any claims that Yelp manipulates reviews for money or that advertisers are treated any differently than non-advertisers are completely false and have been repeatedly dismissed by courts of law, thoroughly researched and disproven by academic study, and investigated by government regulators, including the FTC, who closed a nearly two-year investigation without taking action."
"Businesses receive a Yelp Consumer Alert when they are caught trying to mislead consumers by manipulating their online reputation," the statement said. "Our Consumer Alerts team does extensive research before placing an alert on a business's page. Consumer trust is Yelp's number one priority, so we don't take these situations lightly."
Magic words and yelling 'fire'
Weinstein added this advice on how to structure a review:
"Based on my experience with x company, the following happened to me: It's my understanding of the contract I entered into that I was supposed to receive A, B, and C; however, I don't believe that I did receive that. Based on what happened to me, you might want to double-check before you go ahead and engage this company and business with you. Be aware of what can happen. This is what happened to me."
"Again, by characterizing it as your perception and your understanding of what happened to you and what you were entitled to when you went in, that may offer you some protection," Weinsten said. "The First Amendment protects free speech, but it protects truthful free speech. You still can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater if there's no fire in a crowded theater."
The warning here: exercise your free speech, just be sure to tell it like it is.
"Be careful what you say, because it's not just in your neighborhood anymore. It's around the world," Weinstein said.
In an email, Manes also stated that his client, Superior Moving & Storage, spent "tens of thousands of dollars" setting up relief efforts for people impacted by both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy.
Manes said the company's owner, Anthony Aglione, was recognized with a letter from the city of Long Beach after Hurricane Sandy.
Manes said the company utilized its warehouse as a drop-off location for donated items such as water, blankets, and supplies and then transported the goods to New York.
He also said those efforts were followed after Hurricane Katrina.
Follow Christina Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV
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