Should you worry about online reviews?

A customer writes a negative online review about your restaurant. Should you sue? Should the customer worry about a lawsuit?

“There is nothing unlawful or wrong about commenting about a company or a product if you write the truth,” said attorney Cheryl Gill. “If it is truthful, it is not actionable. You are entitled to your opinions. Even satire is protected when not 100 percent accurate.”

A commenter gets in trouble by ignoring the facts or grossly exaggerating them.  It may be fair to write, “This contractor was not on time for my project,” but not, “This contractor is never on time.”
Websites themselves, such as Yelp or Twitter, are protected under federal law so they cannot be sued.

To successfully sue a commenter in Wisconsin, four standards must be met:

  • A false statement was made about the products or services.
  • The intent was to cause financial harm.
  • There was such a financial loss.
  • The person who wrote the review knew the statement was false or it was written with reckless disregard for its truth.

Complaining about a national company from a small community is not likely to draw legal action, but if you are a prominent person with a million followers you could be at risk. Gill noted lawsuits against a reviewer might draw more negative attention than the complaint itself.

What should you do if you own the criticized business? “An online presence allows you to hear about issues more quickly. Reach out to the critics and tell them you want to fix whatever problems they had,” Gill said. “That can actually help your business. It can even help build long-term relationships with those customers.”

On the other hand, if someone says something so untrue that it causes your business to decline or to close, “It’s time to see a lawyer.”


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