Can You Get Sued For Writing a Negative Review? 3 Things You Need to Know

23 Apr 2015 at 4:00pm

Written by Josh King, Avvo’s Vice President of Business Development and General Counsel

To Be Sued

If you're a fan of writing online reviews for restaurants and hotels, then a series of negative experiences at your doctor's office might prompt you to warn other patients, just like you'd warn diners away from the too-chewy calamari at your local trattoria.

But then you see this: a story about a business threatening to sue a consumer for leaving a less-than-glowing review. You start to have second thoughts. Could the same thing happen to you?

RELATED: Leaving Negative Reviews Online: Everything You Need to Know

Doctors and dentists, along with lawyers, have shown a keenness for suing their negative reviewers. Some doctors have even resorted to underhanded agreements, shuffled into stacks of new patient paperwork, which claim to waive a person’s right to leave bad reviews online.

Thankfully, the vast majority of negative reviews do not result in lawsuits, and no more than a few thousand doctors nationwide resort to these shady agreements. What's more, there are a number of ways you can protect yourself and feel comfortable when leaving online reviews.

1. Stick to the truth

Can I Be Sued By a Negative Review?

It's understandable that a negative experience with a doctor can make you want to pay it back in spades with a scathing review. That's fine — just so as long as you stick to the facts. Where reviewers can get into trouble is when they become hyperbolic and start misstating the facts. Keep in mind that your review is actually more credible if you avoid over-the-top statements and instead clinically detail specific ways in which the care and treatment you received did not meet your expectations.

Think about your own experience as a consumer: Would you rather read a half-crazed rant or a detailed, specific description of another patient's experience? Be exact in your review and don’t succumb to the temptation to add rhetorical flourishes and overstatements.

2. Read the fine print

You should obviously read the documents your doctor has you sign and balk at anything that obligates you to waive your right to speak or, even more harmful, has you relinquish your copyright in any future reviews you may write about that doctor. But even if it’s too late for that, keep this in mind: It’s highly questionable whether such agreements are enforceable.

It’s not a very good policy for a doctor to mandate these types of contracts as a condition of obtaining medical care. In fact, late last year, California  became the first state to ban the use of such blatantly anti-consumer provisions. Other states are considering similar legislation, and a bill was recently introduced in Congress that would extend such consumer protection nationwide. So, even if you did sign an agreement like this, it may be completely toothless in court.

MORE FROM AVVO: The “Right to Be Forgotten” Online: How Deleting Information Could Affect a Cosmetic Procedure

3. Know that anti-SLAPP laws are on your side

Anti-SLAPP Map

In the unlikely event that you do get sued over a review, you might have more protection yet. Anti-SLAPP laws are fast becoming critical tools for defending online speech. These laws are designed to combat SLAPPs, or strategic lawsuits against public participation. A SLAPP is typically a frivolous legal complaint, often for defamation, that’s intended to intimidate the defendant into keeping quiet about a matter of public concern (like a patient’s review of a doctor). These suits don’t count on winning, but instead on making consumers feel that exercising their First Amendment rights simply isn’t worth the uncertainty and costs of a legal defense.

What a good anti-SLAPP law does — and a growing number of states, including California, Texas, and Washington have these in place — is make a plaintiff think twice before filing suit. Why? Because the reviewers being sued for honestly expressing themselves in an online forum can file an immediate motion to have the case thrown out. Not only is the case dismissed if the reviewer wins, but the plaintiff also has to pay the defendant’s legal fees. More states are adopting enhanced anti-SLAPP laws, and there’s even an effort underway to pass uniform anti-SLAPP legislation nationwide.

Fear of getting sued shouldn’t keep you from voicing your opinions and experiences online. Despite the headlines, very few lawsuits are actually filed over consumer reviews. And if you focus on being specific and truthful about your experience, you’ll have nothing to worry about — and you’ll have provided future patients with useful information in the process.

Avvo LogoAbout Avvo

Avvo is the largest online legal marketplace connecting consumers and lawyers. In Avvo’s Q&A forum, consumers can get legal questions answered for free by more than 200,000 participating lawyers or search over 7 million existing questions and answers. The lawyer directory provides Avvo-rated profiles, client reviews, and peer endorsements for 97% of all lawyers in the U.S., so consumers can find the lawyer who’s right for them. Avvo attorneys write about legal issues in everyday life over at Avvo’s NakedLaw blog.

Photo credits: Some rights reserved by Joe Goldberg;