Many people don’t realise the trouble they can get into through leaving a false review on the internet. One divorcing couple, Copia Blake and Peter Birzon found out the hard way, after they left a bad review on Yelp (and possibly reviews on other sites too) in respect of attorney Ann-Marie Giustibelli, who was acting on behalf of Blake in the divorce. The couple jointly accused her of charging well over the odds in legal fees, as well as tampering with the original contract to quadruple the agreed fees.
The case went to court and when challenged, the couple admitted to posting the reviews, but in their defence they said these were based on opinions, so protected by the First Amendment and therefore not libellous or defamatory. However, evidence pointed to Blake agreeing to pay Giustibelli $300 an hour from the outset and their defence crumbled as they admitted they hadn’t been over-charged at all. It goes without saying that the ruling went in favour of Giustibelli, awarding her $350,000 in damages, which the couple must pay.
Libel’s defined in American law as a publication that exposes someone to distrust, hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy, causing them to be avoided, or injuring them in their occupation, business or employment. A snapshot of the reviews the couple left online definitely point to libel, as what was said attacked Giustibelli’s integrity, warning people not to use her and not to mistake her sincerity for honesty. Other accusations said Giustibelli had lied to get more money, trying to convince Blake to crush her husband and causing chaos and fear in the family. The court ruled against the couple based on the fact that they’d specifically accused Giustibelli of charging quadruple the amount of money initially agreed, which they had to say was inaccurate.
The moral of the story is that people blindly believe they’re protected by anonymity when posting on the internet, but sophisticated techniques to identify IP addresses can lead to uncovering internet trolls, online abusers and even fake reviewers, who can all end up in seriously hot water, often severely out of pocket too as a result of their spurious actions.