Yelp review spurs test case for online defamation

By Sterling “Chip” Camden
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Popular review site Yelp is a great place to get that anger off your chest about how you were treated by a crappy, overpriced restaurant or any other vendor/service provider, but a lawsuit filed last February may chill out some of those heated reviews in the future.

Christopher Norberg of San Francisco is being sued for defamation regarding a negative review he posted on Yelp about a Dr. Biegel of the Advanced Chiropractic Center in that same lovely City by the Bay.  I obtained a copy of that review from Christopher’s lawyer, Michael Blacksburg — but I won’t repost it here to avoid creating any legal troubles of our own.   To summarize, Christopher related a dispute over billing after being treated for injuries resulting from his being hit by a car.  He says that he expected a bill for $125, but received one for over $500 — apparently due to delays in payment caused by Mr. Norberg not having health insurance and having to sue the driver of the car to get reimbursed.  Eventually, the doctor accepted $125, but the experience left such a (figurative) pain in Christopher’s backside that he decided to vent about it on Yelp.

That review was included as Exhibit A in the original filing of the defamation suit against Christopher.  Since that time, Christopher removed his review and replaced it with a more carefully worded version.

Now I’m no lawyer, but  I believe that in order to obtain damages, Dr. Biegel’s lawyer (Eric L. Nordskog) will have to prove that the original review includes knowingly incorrect statements of fact that are defamatory.  For instance, if the phone calls Christopher mentioned in the review never happened, or the conversations were materially different than represented.  According to the original filing (also obtained from Christopher’s lawyer), Dr. Biegel claims that all but a few phrases of the review is false.

You might argue that any posting on Yelp or similar sites should be taken as opinion by definition.  But just as in any other publicly available medium, if you include facts they’d better be solid.  Should the court decide in favor of the plaintiff, this could have wide implications for not only sites like Yelp, but also for posts and comments on blogs and other forums (I know I’m going to revisit my old reviews to look for ostensible facts that might be shaky).   The case is scheduled to go before the San Francisco Superior Court on March 2, 2009.

In the long run, I think that the negative publicity from this suit may do far more damage to Dr. Biegel’s business than Christopher’s original one-star review.   Personally, I wouldn’t want to have that doctor’s hands around my neck — but that’s just my opinion.


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