There’s nothing really new with the concept of disgruntled customers complaining about disappointing customer service. But social media amplifies those complaints in a way that simply didn’t exist a decade ago. And businesses that feel the burn are continually struggling to come to grips with how to deal with the new reality. The bad news for many of those businesses is that they frequently lose.
A recent case from the Oregon Supreme court illustrates the point. The facts aren’t very complicated. Carol Neumann owns Dancing Deer Mountain, LLC a business that arranges and performs wedding events at a property owned by Neumann. Christopher Liles was a wedding guest who attended a wedding and reception held on Neumann’s property in June 2010. Two days after those events, Liles posted a negative review about Neumann and her business on Google Reviews, a Web site where people may post comments about services or products they have received.
Liles titled his review “Disaster!!!!! Find a different wedding venue.” And demonstrating a flair for hyperbole that may make him a viable presidential candidate someday, Liles went on:
“There are many other great places to get married, this is not that place! The worst wedding experience of my life! The location is beautiful the problem is the owners. Carol (female owner) is two faced, crooked, and was rude to multiple guest[s]. I was only happy with one thing. It was a beautiful wedding, when it wasn’t raining and Carol and Tim stayed away. The owners did not make the rules clear to the people helping with set up even when they saw something they didn’t like they waited until the day of the wedding to bring it up. They also changed the rules as they saw fit. We were told we had to leave at 9pm, but at 8:15 they started telling the guests that they had to leave immediately. The ‘bridal suite’ was a tool shed that was painted pretty, but a shed all the same. In my opinion [s]he will find a why [sic] to keep your $500 deposit, and will try to make you pay even more.”
Neumann and Dancing Deer filed a defamation suit against Liles. Utilizing Oregon’s anti-SLAPP statute, Liles moved for an expedited dismissal of the suit. As an aside, many states (although not Ohio) have adopted statutes designed to limit “Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.” That’s where “SLAPP” comes from (just in case my readers thought I didn’t know how to spell). These laws are designed to discourage lawsuits designed to chill discussion on matters of public interest.
But getting back to the Oregon case. The court granted the motion to dismiss. The intermediate level court of appeals, however, reversed that decision, finding that Liles’ comments were verifiable statements of fact that would support a defamation claim. Liles then appealed that ruling to the Oregon Supreme Court, contending his statements were non-actionable statements of opinion, and a reasonable reader would not interpret his hyperbole as factual.
The Oregon Supreme Court sided with Liles. It adopted a three part test that courts from other jurisdictions have employed in similar cases. The test looks at three factors:
(1) the statement’s broad context, which includes the general tenor of the entire work; (2) the specific context and content of the statements, and the reasonable expectations of the audience in that particular situation; and (3) whether the statement itself is sufficiently factual to be susceptible of being proved true or false.
In this case, the court felt that the “general tenor” of the work was a comment on a matter of public interest, which supported a finding in favor of Liles on factor one. On factor two, the court determined that a reasonable reader would interpret Liles' rant as the comments of a single unhappy guest, and not consider the comments a presentation of objective facts. On the third factor, the court found that Liles' very over the top style negated any impression that his comments were capable of being proven true or false. The court looked at what it called his “histrionic” language, including his liberal use of exclamation points in support of its finding.
The lesson form this case? It may be that if you’re going to write a negative online review, go big. The case suggests that the more outlandish the language, the less likely it will be considered factual. Think about the liberal use of emojis as further protection.
Of course, that is not exactly good news for businesses like Dancing Deer that may actually lose business from a negative review. But that appears to be a consequence of living in a society that values free speech.