May 5, 2022
By Shelby J. Bensinger
Before consumers decide to make a purchase, they often take to the internet. Between social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and online review platforms such as Yelp, Angie’s List, and Google Reviews, there are plenty of avenues for customers to share their opinions. Online reviews play an increasingly important role in a company’s reputation, and they can often make or break a business. When businesses are faced with an online review that they feel is false or unfairly negative, they often ask what, if any, legal action they can take to protect their reputation.
There is a multitude of strategies for confronting a negative online review. In certain instances, a negative online review may give rise to an actionable claim for defamation. Under Georgia law, written defamation, or libel, is defined as “false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” O.C.G.A. § 51-5-1. When determining whether a negative online review meets this threshold, there are important factors to consider.
First, the Georgia Supreme Court has clarified that a statement accusing a business of a mistake or unprofessional conduct on a single occasion does not constitute defamation per se. For a statement to be considered per se defamation, it has to accuse the business of being unprofessional or unfit to do business in general. A defamatory statement is one that attacks the character of a business.
Second, truth is an absolute defense to defamation under Georgia law. It is important for business owners to first investigate whether there is any legitimacy to the statements in a negative review before taking legal action against the reviewer. If the reviewer can show that what they said was true – regardless of how negative or embarrassing it may be – the business owner will not have a claim for defamation.
Third, a statement that merely reflects an opinion is not defamatory. However, there is not always a bright line drawn between opinion and defamation, because asserting that a purported defamatory statement was merely an “opinion” is more of an imperfect defense. For example, a customer’s statement that a business’s products or services are overpriced may be considered an opinion. However, if a statement falsely suggests or implies that a business is making false representations or defrauding customers, that may support a cause of action for defamation.
Defamation is a very complex and sometimes tricky area of the law, and these are just a few of the many considerations that one should undertake when evaluating how to respond to a potentially defamatory statement. Business owners who believe that their businesses have been defamed in an online review or on social media should consult with an experienced attorney to determine whether legal action can be taken.
Shelby J. Bensinger is an associate attorney with Flint, Connolly & Walker, LLP who represents clients in a variety of civil and business litigation matters.