“If you don’t have anything nice to say, it is best not to say anything;” basic common sense equally applicable in the digital age. A good example of this is Yelp. There is a growing trend on the Web to permit comments and reviews, which can be done “anonymously.” But more and more the commenter’s identity is not so secret. And when the posting is false or slanderous, the commenter may be sued for libel or defamation by the injury party.
The recent case of Wong v. Jing is based on a negative and false posting on Yelp regarding a dentist; Wong v. Jing, 2010 WL 4457330 (Cal. App. Ct. Nov. 9, 2010). In the posting, the commenter was identified by initials only. However, the dentist was able to link the post to the father of a child treated by the dentist. The California Court of Appeals held that the father in his Yelp post falsely accused the dentist of harming the child’s nervous system by the use of laughing gas, failing to advise the parents of the risks with amalgam fillings, and misdiagnosis. The father defended his posting as an exercise of his constitutionally-protected right of free speech. The Court held otherwise, stating that “to constitute a libel it is not necessary that there be a direct and specific allegation of improper conduct. The charge may be either expressly stated or implied; and in the latter case the implication may be either apparent from the language used, or of such a character as to require the statement and [colloquium or innuendo to show the meaning].”
The Court of Appeals held that the dentist is able to proceed with a libel lawsuit against the father for the false Yelp posting, and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings against the father.
Yelp was also sued by the dentist, but the website was quickly dismissed from the case. Hosting websites are generally immune from liability for harm created by false postings. To add insult to injury, Yelp has grounds against the dentist to recover its attorney’s fees.
Before posting comments on Yelp keep in mind what your words imply and that they could be considered libel. Sometimes the less said really is better.
Attorney Denise Chambliss is a Senior Associate of Garcia & Gurney, A Law Corporation, a law firm in Pleasanton, CA. Ms. Chambliss serves clients in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as clients throughout California.