Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Business hit hard by bad Yelp review

But jury refuses to award damages

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WASHINGTON -- A Fairfax County, Va., jury was presented with an unusual but closely watched case to decide: Did Jane Perez, a Fairfax City resident, defame a Washington contractor by writing scathing reviews of his work on the popular Internet sites Yelp and Angie's List? And when Christopher Dietz levelled his own accusations in online posts responding to Perez, did he in turn defame her?

After a five-day trial and eight hours of deliberations, the jury essentially declared a draw when it returned a verdict Friday night that caught both sides off guard: Perez and Dietz had defamed each other but neither would get a cent in damages.

"I'm kind of shocked," Dietz said after the verdict, adding he felt vindicated that the jury had found he was defamed by Perez's reviews.

But Perez claimed victory, too.

"I think freedom of speech won in this case, and that's a good message to send," she said.

Dietz filed his $750,000 defamation lawsuit against Perez in 2012, saying her online reviews cost him $300,000 worth of business and personally humiliated him. Perez hired Dietz to spruce up her Fairfax home and then took to Yelp and Angie's List afterward to air a long list of complaints.

Perez alleged Dietz trespassed on her property, billed her for work he didn't do and was the only other person who had a key when jewelry disappeared from her home, among other claims. Perez fumed in a scathing one-star takedown on Yelp: "Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor."

In responses posted on the review sites, Dietz said Perez had stolen his goods and services, since she never paid him for the job and did not allow him to pick up valuable items from her house.

The case received widespread news-media attention and was closely watched by free-speech activists and businesses alike. First Amendment advocates say businesses are increasingly taking legal action over posts on review sites such as Yelp to squelch critical -- but important -- consumer information.

Businesses say they must take an aggressive stance against reviews deemed false, since Yelp and other such sites have become so influential in forming customers' opinions. A false and damaging review can live on indefinitely and reach hundreds, thousands or even millions of customers, causing untold harm.

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2014 A7

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