It is well known that small businesses often live or die by word-of-mouth advertising. This is true even more so today as more and more of U.S. consumers consult online reviews and social media before patronizing a local business. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people expressing their opinions and posting online reviews of businesses on sites like Yelp!, TripAdvisor, and Google. With this rise in people posting online reviews, it's not surprising that some business owners are trying to fight back against negative reviews.
So, what happens when a patron posts a negative review of a business and the business owner tries to fight back with a lawsuit? For many consumers, this type of litigation is excessively expensive. Businesses can often force online critics into silence by threatening or filing speech-based lawsuits and asserting claims like defamation (libel or slander), false light, invasion of privacy, and/or business interference. These types of lawsuits are frequently labeled as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation ("SLAPP"). SLAPP suits are causing many people to think twice before posting a negative review online.
To combat the rise of SLAPP suits in Tennessee, the Tennessee legislature, in July 2019, passed the Tennessee Public Participation Act ("TPPA"). The TPPA expands the scope of speech that receives legal protection in Tennessee. It also grants people targeted by SLAPP suits the opportunity to dismiss meritless claims early on in the litigation process. Moreover, the TPPA allows a prevailing defendant to have her attorney's fees paid for if the plaintiff's claims are ultimately dismissed.
In February of this year, the first-ever dismissal of a plaintiff's claims under the TPPA was granted in Wilson County General Sessions Court by Judge Barry Tatum. The case arose out of a lawsuit filed by a Tennessee doctor. His claims regarded a negative Yelp! review posted by a patient's daughter. After the daughter took her father to see the doctor and had a terrible experience, she published a negative review on Yelp!. The doctor threatened to sue her if she did not remove the post. Ultimately, he did sue her for defamation and false light invasion of privacy.
The patient's daughter subsequently filed an immediate Petition to Dismiss the Plaintiffs' claims under the TPPA. On February 13, 2020, her petition was granted. Thus, pending a potential appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, all the plaintiff's claims against the defendant have been dismissed with prejudice. Hopefully, the TPPA will continue to provide an avenue for honest consumer criticism that simultaneously protects businesses who are actually harmed by untruthful, defamatory online reviews.
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