A Fairfax County woman being sued for defamation over negative reviews she wrote on Yelp and Angie’s List must delete certain accusations and is barred from repeating them in new posts, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The preliminary injunction was hailed as a victory by a D.C. contractor, who took the woman to court claiming that her online reviews of the work he did on her home were false and cost him $300,000 in business. He is suing her for $750,000.
“It’s a win on morality, integrity and truthfulness,” contractor Christopher Dietz said after the hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court. “This is permanent damage. I can’t undo what she did.”
Jane Perez hired Dietz to perform cosmetic improvements in June 2011 on her newly purchased townhouse, but she quickly soured on Dietz and gave him a scathing one-star review on Yelp and a similar treatment on Angie’s List.
The list of accusations over the job were long, but included damage to her home, an invoice for work Dietz did not perform and jewelry that went missing when Dietz was the only other person with a key to her home. Dietz denies those claims.
The judge barred Perez from implying in posts that Dietz stole jewelry from her home and that she had won on the merits a previous lawsuit Dietz brought against her for unpaid bills.
Dietz has not been charged in connection with the missing jewelry, and the lawsuit over the bills was dismissed before a county judge could rule on the substance of the case.
During Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys for Dietz and Perez spent hours questioning each of them over the merits of the claims.
In Virginia, someone can be found liable for defamation if he states or implies a false factual statement about a person or business that causes harm to the subject’s reputation. Opinions are generally protected by the First Amendment.
Perez did not comment after the hearing, but James Bacon, her attorney, called the preliminary injunction “narrowly tailored.” He said it let most of the contents of her reviews stand. He said he thinks the lawsuit was brought to silence his client from airing valuable consumer information.
“It appears to be a very chilling result in terms of speech,” Bacon said.
Lawyers say legal actions over reviews on Web sites such as Yelp are on the rise, as the sites have grown in popularity and online reputations have become more important for doctors, dentists and a host of other professionals.
Some reviewers and free speech advocates view such suits as attempts to stifle freedom of speech, while business owners say they are being forced to fight back because a false post online can cause serious damage to their businesses.
A trial date has not been set for the court to weigh the defamation claims.