I saw an article on The Automotive News Web site recently that caught my eye. It seems that the Huntington Beach Mazda Dealership in California was the subject of a rather unflattering review on Google and Yelp. And by unflattering I mean terrible.

The review claimed employees of the dealership had blocked an elderly woman’s medical help as she suffered a heart attack at the dealership. It accused the staff of attempted murder and called for a boycott of the dealership. I know car dealers have a pretty lousy reputation (this coming from a lawyer, so I know something about unpopular occupations) but this was pretty tough.

And it turns out, it was not true. The person who posted the review had never been to the dealership. But what the dealership did about it offers some lessons for anyone victimized by a phony review.

The dealership first contacted the EMTs and fire departments in the area, each of whom verified that they’d not responded to any call at the dealership. This provided the objective proof that the review was false.

The dealership then contacted Google and Yelp and asked that the review be taken down. Both companies indicated it would be at least 5 – 10 business days before they could respond. Recognizing the need for speed, the dealership hired a private investigator and discovered the identity of the poster. The dealership contacted her and convinced her to remove the post. This happened before the internal wheels at Google and Yelp reacted.

One thing that helped the dealership respond was its use of a software package that monitored social media. Using this service, it saw the review almost as soon as it was posted, and it allowed for the quick action.

The final step for the dealership was an action for libel against the reviewer in small claims court. There the court awarded $4000, finding that the reviewer’s comments – accusing the staff of criminal conduct – were factual statements, not opinion. In the course of the small claims proceeding it was established that the poster had heard the story third hand and mistakenly thought it was Huntington Mazda. And get this, the poster went ahead and posted about it, despite not knowing the facts. Imagine that. 

The dealership donated the $4000 to charity. But the legal finding itself was priceless for its PR value. The decision to proceed in small claims court was an interesting call. Small claims courts can only award up to a limited amount of damages. $4000 is on the high end. So filing there necessarily limits the plaintiff’s recovery. But matters move to trial much more quickly in the small claims setting, and there is typically much less discovery and pre-trial motion practice. Here, the dealership was more interested in a speedy resolution than it was in the size of the damage award. A measured approach is often better than shock and awe.

The lessons here for a victim of a fake online review? There are four I think. First, monitor online comments about your business. Two, get the truth verified by an independent objective source. Three, act swiftly. And finally, pick your battles and battlefield wisely. Speedy resolution may be more important that maxing out the damage recovery.