Wedding "Disasters": Are Negative Online Reviews Defamation?

Businesses depend on their good reputation, especially in the wedding industry. If customers have a bad experience, it's unlikely that they can simply switch to a different wedding vendor. Instead, customers take to online review platforms like Yelp to express their dissatisfaction. Scathing reviews can be especially damaging to wedding vendors, who often only work with customers once, and rely on their positive reviews to drum up future business.

As a result, some wedding vendors have taken a hard stance against bad reviews, bringing defamation lawsuits against the reviewers. In one case, a wedding coordinator sued a former customer who warned other brides online, "You will not get what you paid for and your association with the company will cause way more stress, tears, and sleepless nights than any bride should have to deal with." In another, an event planner specializing in music entertainment sued a groom's mother who lamented online that "the singer was awful . . . the number of musicians promised did not show up . . . [and] the band leader had no personality whatsoever." Interestingly, a third case involved a wedding guest who posted a Google Review after attending a wedding at a particular venue and deemed it "the worst wedding experience of my life!"

But are defamation suits the best strategy to defend against negative reviews? Let's look at the results: in the first case referenced above, the federal district court agreed that specific statements in the customer's review were false, including a claim that the coordinator moved multiple times to avoid service. Therefore, the customer's statements were found to be defamatory. Nevertheless because the coordinator could not show damages, she only received a nominal award of $1.00. Similarly, in the second case, the business was able to show that the reviewer's claim that only a handful of musicians showed up, was false. However, the vendor failed to show damage to their business as a consequence, and could not show the statements were defamatory on their face to obtain special damages. Without these showings, the reviewer ultimately prevailed. And in the third case, the guest's review was found to be protected First Amendment speech, since it was an expression of opinion on a matter of public concern (at least for those in the market for wedding vendors).

The lessons here are useful for wedding vendors-and any business-facing a negative review online. Opinions may be hurtful, but alone, they are probably not actionable in a lawsuit. A customer is probably entitled to a negative opinion, whether they deem a wedding the "worst experience of their life" or a "disaster." By contrast, specific statements that can be proven (or disproven) may be a basis for suit, such as if a customer claims a baker only provided a two-tier wedding cake rather than a ten-tier wedding cake. Even then, whether it makes sense to sue someone over a bad review depends on whether the potential award will make the suit worthwhile (and whether the business can withstand the optics of suing someone over an online review). There may be other strategies, such as reaching out directly to a frustrated customer, or encouraging satisfied customers to write positive reviews, which can more effectively mitigate the impact of a negative review. Still, if a damaging review contains blatant falsehoods, and there is a noticeable impact on business, it may be the unique case where a defamation suit is the best course to preserve a vendor's good reputation. For more information on this legal area or other business matters, contact Attorney Samantha Clarke at 401-824-5100 or email sclarke@pldolaw.com. We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

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