The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee recently granted TripAdvisor LLC’s (“TripAdvisor”) Motion to Dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed by Plaintiff Kenneth M. Seatons’s Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (“Grand Resort”).

TripAdvisor.com provides travel information on hotels, resorts, and restaurants worldwide. Visitors to TripAdvisor.com can review various businesses by responding to surveys and can post comments about their experiences at the businesses. Based on these reviews, TripAdvisor also compiles and publishes various rankings, categorizing the businesses listed on its website. For example, annually since 2006, TripAdvisor has published a list of the ten dirtiest hotels.

The 2011 Dirtiest Hotels list, which was redistributed by several media outlets, identified the Grand Resort as the dirtiest hotel in America. Arguing that TripAdvisor’s statements were likely to significantly damage its business, the Grand Resort sued TripAdvisor for defamation and false light. The Grand Resort argued that TripAdvisor was liable for publishing “unsubstantiated rumors and grossly distorted ratings and misleading statements to be used by consumers,” and requested ten million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.

Noting that under Tennessee law defamation requires a defendant to “communicate a false or misleading statement of fact, or a statement of opinion that implies having a basis in defamatory facts,” the court held that a reasonable person would view TripAdvisor’s Dirtiest Hotel list as merely hyperbolic opinion or rhetorical exaggeration. In light of widespread rankings and recommendations on the Internet and in the media, the court found that reasonable consumers would distinguish between the inherently subjective Dirtiest Hotel rankings and objectively verifiable facts. Accordingly, the court granted TripAdvisor’s Motion to Dismiss.

Rankings for all types of products and retail services have become ubiquitous, requiring consumers to differentiate fact-based reviews and subjective opinions. This case presents an interesting question as to the line between opinions based on fact and those that could be defamatory.