What Are My Legal Options if My Business Has Been Defamed?
Social media is causing defamation claims to become more common. There are several areas for consideration if you feel your business has been defamed.
First, what is defamation? Expressing an opinion is not defamation. For example, if someone claims that the pizza at your pizza parlor “sucks” or “tastes terrible.” That is not defamation. It is just their opinion.
However, if your business was accused of having stolen from someone, such as a customer or vendor, a defamation claim could be pursued because such accusations are capable of being proven false. There was either theft, or there was not.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine the difference between an opinion and a “fact” that can be proven false. However, even if the statement at issue is an opinion, there are still steps you can take to deal with any disparaging statements made against your business.
The first thing to consider is confronting the person. Ask why they made the disparaging statement. Perhaps your customer simply wanted a refund or discount. In other cases, the person may simply want a sincere apology. Always be kind, put yourself in their shoes, and ask if there is anything you can do to resolve their concerns.
Another option is writing a letter to the affected people to “set the record straight.” You could list out the accusations and address each of them in detail. This can sometimes make things worse by reminding people of what they may have forgotten, but it can also be a quick and inexpensive way to tell your side of the story.
If posted online, you may be able to submit a request to the website host to remove the review. However, the host will not typically remove the post, unless it violates their terms of service.
In situations where you are looking for the person to stop making any further accusations, a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney is a good option. Cease-and-desist letters tend to have a high success rate if the person is a rational actor. However, if they are overly emotional, a cease- and-desist letter can sometimes backfire. The cease-and-desist letter can also request an apology, but getting an apology is not always easy depending on the emotions involved.
Another option is to seek an injunction against workplace harassment. If you can show that the person has said or done two or more things in the last year that “seriously alarmed, harassed, or annoyed you,” you can ask a court to grant an injunction against workplace harassment. Courts are receptive to granting injunctions against harassment when the person is using social media and the internet to attack your business without justification.
If granted, the person would be prohibited from harassing your business, directly or indirectly, for a period of a year. Injunctions can be extended if warranted. This is a speedy procedure that many people choose to handle on their own. However, having an attorney involved is often a good idea.
Another option is to send a demand letter seeking compensation. The threat of a defamation lawsuit can sometimes result in a prompt resolution, including payment for damages and/or an apology.
The final step is to file a lawsuit for defamation. There is a one-year statute of limitations on a defamation claim, so claims must be filed timely. In a defamation lawsuit, damages for emotional distress, harm to your reputation, and even punitive damages (if warranted) can be received. Unfortunately, neither side can recover their attorney fees. The court, if asked, can also enter a declaratory judgment that the statements are false. Publicly posting the declaratory judgment can help set the record straight.
As with any legal matter, you should talk with an attorney to determine which of these approaches makes the most sense for your situation.
About the Author: Jeffrey Silence is a partner at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. He has significant experience pursuing and defending defamation claims, including seeking and defending against injunctions against harassment.