“I’m emotionally exhausted. This has been a very long battle,” Polito said. “Last Friday when the verdict was read I felt a little bit relieved, but most importantly, I feel my reputation was restored to myself. What’s been so hard the past couple of years has been feeling so ashamed of this story.” – Andrea Polito
Andrea Polito, a Dallas wedding photographer and owner of ‘Andrea Polito Wedding Photography’, won the longest fight of her life – a defamation suit against former customers that lasted for two and a half years.
It all started when a couple, Neely and Andrew Moldovan, hired Polito to take their wedding pictures in 2014. When the couple inquired when their wedding pictures would be released, Polito reminded them that the contract required them to submit an order form and select a cover photo, costing $125, before photos could be released. They objected to paying the $125 fee.
Polito was planning to waive the fee. But the couple already contacted local television stations. They claimed that Polito were holding their wedding pictures hostage. The couple also posted disparaging, defamatory, and malicious statements on different internet platforms – social media, Yelp, and blogs, including Wedding Wire,claiming that Polito “scammed and cheated” people. At one point they bragged they were “pretty sure her business is done.”
The photographer’s business fell apart overnight. She had to leave the studio she’d kept for a decade. Instead of booking the usual 75 to 100 weddings, she only booked two weddings in all of 2015.
Under Texas law defamation is a false and unprivileged publication, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes the same to be shunned or avoided, or which tends to injure him in his occupation. It can either be libel or slander. Libel is in the form of writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye while slander is orally uttered, and includes communications by radio or other means.
Finally, on July 28, 2017, a Texas Jury found the couple, Neely and Andrew Moldovan, liable for knowingly publishing false information about the Dallas wedding photographer. Polito was awarded $1.08 million in damages.
While Polito may have been in the right, there are many businesses who sue customers for what may even be truthful reviews. A Yelp user in Florida named Tom Lloyd was left with more than $25,000 in legal bills after a veterinary hospital sued him for defamation over a negative Yelp review. In the review, Lloyd recounted how his dog died at the animal hospital waiting for a surgeon who never showed up. That case has now settled after Lloyd found two veterinarians who submitted declarations in his favor.
But for consumers who post honest, but negative, reviews of businesses, there are protections.
In 2016 Congress passed a law, called the Consumer Review Fairness Act (CRFA), to protect consumers’ ability to leave an honest online review of a business without being punished.
The CRFA banned the use by businesses of non-disparagement clauses in any contracts that aren’t reasonably open to negotiation. It’s allowed the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on businesses trying to use the threat of a lawsuit, and the associated legal fees, to pressure consumers into not leaving negative reviews or taking them down after they’ve been written.
And in many states, defamation suits by businesses can be countered with anti-SLAPP motions, which in many cases force the business to show that they can prevail on their defamation claim at the early stages of a lawsuit.
What do you think? Are false reviews rare? Or do consumers post them too often to extract concessions from businesses?