wormsIs posting an unfavorable review like opening a can of worms? We are all tempted to “get back” at companies or people we feel treated us unfairly. The trouble is, it has become all too easy to post on sites like Angie’s List or Yelp without thinking through the possible legal ramifications.

The fact your unfavorable review is online does not insulate you from potential liability for slander or defamation.

It can be very satisfying to vent your anger against a company, a doctor, or a lawyer that you feel did a bad job. Or, how about the restaurant that served you a horrible meal? Is there a civic duty to warn others? You may feel that way, but be very careful. There is an inherent legal risk in posting negative reviews. The laws of defamation allow someone wrongly accused to seek redress in court. If that person is successful, you may we ordered to pay him damages. The amount of damages can be related to the number of people who are aware of the defamation.

The fact your review might be read by thousands or even millions can actually increase the damages you may face at the end of a courtroom battle. Let’s look at a recent case to see what went wrong and what could have been done differently.

A homeowner in Fairfax, Virginia was very upset with her contractor. The contractor has been hired to make some upgrades to the homeowner’s new town-home.  According to the homeowner, the work was not done timely and about $2,500 of her jewelry went missing during construction.

The homeowner, after firing the contractor, wrote some very negative reviews on both Angie’s List and Yelp. She basically said that besides the shoddy workmanship, she discovered after firing the contractor that the jewelry was missing and that she had to file a police report. In the reviews, she also said the contractor’s employees were “The only ones with keys” and that the contractor was responsible.

After seeing the reviews, the contractor sued the homeowner for $750,000 in actual and punitive damages.

The litigation is ongoing at this time and a jury trial is expected to commence before long. Regardless of the outcome, both sides will be spending a small fortune in legal fees. The lesson to be learned? Think carefully before you vent in a public forum. Giving a contractor a low rating because you are not satisfied with his work is one thing. Accusing him of theft is quite another. Think through what you are saying, and before you click the “post” button, let it sit for a day. Don’t post while you are angry -you could end up being sued.