Four Steps to Not Get Sued for Posting Online Reviews

The Short Version:

  1. Consider who you are reviewing before clicking submit. Small business, new businesses, and business professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, are more likely to defend their reputation in court than their larger or more established counterparts.
  2. Color your review with language that makes it clear that your review conveys your opinion. Opinions cannot be proven false, and will therefore not be able to form the basis of an action for defamation.
  3. Confine your review to the facts of your experience. Review what happened, not why you think it happened, and do not extrapolate from a bad experience to an ultimate judgment of a business owner's character.
  4. When all else fails, use a disclaimer.

You might believe it’s unnecessary to receive advice on how not to get sued when writing reviews, but as studies continue to demonstrate that a business’s expected revenue is directly correlated with its online reputation, more and more businesses are looking to the legal system to defend their reputation against their harshest online critics. Doctors are suing their patients on Yelp. Sellers are suing their buyers on Amazon. Home builders are suing home owners on Angie’s List. And lawyers, well, they’re just suing everyone everywhere by implication.

So, say you had a less than positive experience with a product or service and want to help others avoid the same mistake as you: how can you vent your frustrations online without getting dragged to court to defend your opinions?

Well, the short answer is you can’t. Regardless of the veracity of your review’s claims, there will always be aggressive companies that will send you a cease and desist letter simply because the threat of litigation is often enough to scare people into taking down a review.

Yet, just because you cannot prevent it from happening does not mean you cannot minimize its chance of occurrence and any would-be reviewers can take the following steps to better ensure that they will not be stuck in litigation with a company they already wanted nothing more to do with:

1. Understand the type of establishment you are reviewing.

When reviewing a business, I cannot stress enough how important it is to take into account the characteristics of the business you are reviewing. Is it a small or local business? Is it a new business? Is it an individual professional such as a doctor or lawyer that you are reviewing? Answering yes to any of these questions should alert you that writing a scathing review of this business is much more likely to land you in court than writing that same review for one of its larger or more established competitors.

While that may sound like I am singling these kind of establishments out as unfriendly to consumers, I mean only to make obvious what common sense is already telling you. Of course, the larger, more seasoned, and established company is less likely to feel that their reputation is endangered by a single review. And, of course, the small, new, or local businesses you trashed on Yelp is more likely to feel like your bad review is such a threat to future business that its owners will not hesitate to litigate over your claim’s truth.

Moreover, if common sense alone is not enough to prove this point, then know that a review of the growing pile of cases making up this expanding arena for defamation law confirms that while Samsung, Best Buy, McDonalds, and other household names won’t sue you for a bad review, your neighborhood watch repair shop, resident plastic surgeon and even your local church very well could.

Thus, in order to shelter yourself from a threat of legal action when you review one of these establishments, you should…

2. State Opinions Instead of Disprovable Facts.

When speaking to matters that go beyond the facts of the actual experience you had with a product or service, you should exercise discretion to make sure that any claims you make without actual proof are phrased as opinions and not statements of fact.

This is important because a business that brings a defamation lawsuit based on a review you wrote has to provide some information that refutes the claims you made in that review, and although opinions can be premature and severely misguided, they can not be false.3

Thus, when, for example, a person purchases a product that does not even approach being able to do what the three 5-star reviews says it did, it is common for that person to include in their review a claim that the business somehow manufactured those prior reviews. However, in doing so, there is a world of difference between claiming “I think this company is paying for positive reviews” and claiming “this company paid for the positive reviews.” The former is an opinion: it is clearly a subjective statement that cannot be proven false and therefore cannot form the basis for a claim for defamation. The latter is a disprovable statement of fact and, the bottom line is, if you are going to make that statement, you better make sure it’s true first.

Still, it’s important for me to note that framing your claims as opinions instead of facts will do little to prevent a lawsuit when these opinions contain particularly harsh allegations of which you have no proof. So, being that the point of this article is not to show you how to prevail in a defamation suit, but about how to altogether avoid having to defend against one in the first place, it’s probably best to…

3. Stick to the Facts of Your Personal Experience.

With the truth being your best defense against defamation allegations, it’s fairly easy to not get sued so long as you confine your review to a clear and accurate description of the facts of your personal experience with a product or service. In fact, you should feel free to be as crass, lewd, and condescending as you want in your reviews so long as you do not speak to matters that go beyond what you actually experienced.

You might think that is obvious, but reviewers are sometimes so infuriated by the service they received that they use their experience as a springboard to make baseless ultimate judgments on the character of business owners, often by reverting to calling owners names like thieves, liars, or racists in all capital letters.

So if there is one last piece of advice that I can give to would-be-reviewers without making them feel like I’m trying to revirginize their beloved pastime of being a Yelp vigilante, it is to just never ever ever make these type of claims in your reviews. Not only do these claims come off as so over the top that they, along with your other statements, will be dismissed by persons who read your review, but they are also of such a nature that any person, business owner or not, will feel compelled to defend against the making of these allegations in a heavily visited public forum.

What’s more disappointing is that, up until you make these claims, an attorney will likely express extreme confidence in your ability to prevail in any action for defamation based on your review’s claim. That is because an attorney will know that, although I said a business must prove your review contained false statements to bring an action for defamation, that is not all they must prove. Rather, defamation law thankfully developed with an understanding that we humans are prone to mistakes and courts will typically find that a person cannot be held liable even for what turn out to be false claims made in a review unless it can proven that these false statements were made with malice, i.e. an intentional or reckless disregard for their truth.4

While this is a very tough standard to meet in a typical review case, it is not so difficult to meet for reviewers that are unable to refrain from making unsubstantiated accusations that a business owner is a thief, a racist, or anything of that nature. Thus, do yourself and your attorney a favor and review what actually happened, not why you think it happened.

But, alas, if you are one of those people who just feels like no matter how hard you try to play it safe, you somehow always manage to land yourself in trouble, then….

4. When all else fails, use a disclaimer.

Just kidding. Well, kind of… “The following is my personal opinion and nothing in this review should be interpreted as factual statements that serve as conclusions for how you should feel about this business.”


  1. This is not entirely accurate as opinions can be “false” when, for example, they are not actually your opinions but a mere parroting of the opinions of a friend or other acquaintance.

  2. It should be noted that in a defamation action, a plaintiff usually also has to establish a third element—an intent to cause harm to the target of the statement—but, given the general purpose of and motivation behind leaving a negative review, false claims that deter others from visiting an establishment will almost always satisfy the intent-to-harm element in a defamation action based on that review.

  3. This is not entirely accurate as opinions can be “false” when, for example, they are not actually your opinions but a mere parroting of the opinions of a friend or other acquaintance.

  4. It should be noted that in a defamation action, a plaintiff usually also has to establish a third element—an intent to cause harm to the target of the statement—but, given the general purpose of and motivation behind leaving a negative review, false claims that deter others from visiting an establishment will almost always satisfy the intent-to-harm element in a defamation action based on that review.

AJ Afkari | techlawgic

A.J. Afkari is a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in legal matters related to the Internet, technology, and all things intertwined. He received his B.A. from UCLA, his J.D. from USC, and his A.J. from his mother.

1 Comment Leave a reply

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Four Steps to Not Get Sued for Posting Online Reviews | techlawgic
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