Fairfax jury declares a draw in closely watched case over ‘Yelp’ reviews

A Fairfax County jury was presented with an unusual but closely watched case to decide: Did Jane Perez, a Fairfax City resident, defame a D.C. contractor by writing scathing reviews of his work on the popular Internet sites Yelp and Angie’s List? And when Christopher Dietz leveled 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

Perez contracted with Dietz in 2011 to perform basic cosmetic work on her newly purchased townhouse, but the pair clashed over the $9,500 job. Perez ended up firing Dietz.

Armed with dozens of photos, Perez testified during the trial that Dietz’s work was slipshod. She said a closet’s sliding doors wouldn’t open, rainwater seeped in through a window after an air conditioner was improperly installed and hairs were trapped beneath the varnish on a floor.

Dietz said he did all the work he was contracted to do thoroughly and professionally. When it was his turn to testify, he said Perez’s review badly damaged his eight-year-old business. Five to 10 potential contracts fell through after Perez posted her remarks and business associates had to explain to clients why Dietz had such negative feedback.

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