I frequently receive phone calls from upset business owners who are dealing with either disgruntled employees or customers. In the age of the internet and social media, more often than not, the employee or customer has posted something negative online. Usually the business owner will approach me with some type of working knowledge of North Carolina defamation laws, as their first step after reading the review tends to be performing a Google search on what their legal rights might be. With these types of claims it is important to have a lawyer who views themselves not only as an advocate but also as a counselor and advisor.
Consider the following situation. An electrical contractor has performed work at a customer’s house and the customer, for whatever reason, takes to Google’s review and rating system to post a complaint as well as photographs. Upon learning of this review, the electrical contractor reads the review and looks at the pictures. As it turns out, the customer posted pictures of the light fixtures the electrical contractor was hired to change, as opposed to the new light fixtures. Light bulbs were burnt out, the fixture itself was crooked. Clearly the light fixture was not installed professionally. Moreover, the review states that the electrical contractor was rude and unprofessional. What options might the electrical contractor have?
In this scenario, the electrical contractor is rightfully upset as the pictures are wrong, and in the electrical contractor’s opinion he did not act rudely or unprofessionally. One option would be to send a demand to the customer that the customer cease and desist and remove the false and defamatory postings, lest the customer be liable to the electrical contractor for damages. At times, this results in the cease and desist letter finding its way onto the Google review as an “update.” So, instead of this being a simple negative review where one person has posted their viewpoint, it now makes the electrical contractor look defensive and overly litigious. Another option would be to file a lawsuit for the defamatory posting. These claims are very difficult to prove, have a one-year statute of limitations, and are often more trouble than they are worth. Additionally, at least with respect to the allegations of rude and unprofessional behavior in our hypothetical, the customer will argue they were just sharing an opinion, which is permitted under the law.
The better options for the electrical contractor in our example are to either 1) do nothing and let their positive reviews speak for themselves; 2) politely respond to the review, with pictures if possible, to set the record straight (here is why taking pictures of your work is so important); or 3) contact the platform on which the review was posted to determine what recourse might be available. Always be cautious about getting into arguments on the internet, whether personally or professionally.
There are certain instances where pursuing a customer for defaming your business may be necessary and warranted. These involve repeated defamation with clear evidence of serious damage to your business. Moreover, the customer needs to be able to pay a judgment to compensate you for the damages you suffered. Often, the business defamation claims worth pursuing involve business to business relationships. Having previously operated my own small business, I know how important reviews are. However, I also know how much a few dozen positive reviews tend to silence the one negative review. Most people realize that there will almost always be someone who wants to complain for the sake of complaining, and they won’t let a single bad review significantly influence their decision on whether to business with you.
If you have questions about how to protect yourself from online business defamation, or need advice on how to respond with an unhappy customer who has taken to the internet to complain, one of our attorneys would be happy to speak with you about your situation, as the specific facts of these cases tend to determine the best course of action.