Today, when a person is upset with the service they receive from a business, they take to sites like Yelp, Twitter and Facebook to express themselves. Such social networks are an easy place to post reviews and tips, as well as to vent frustration.
However, these sites and others have led to some interesting legal situations. Take Justin Kurtz, a Michigan college student who received a bill for $118 to retrieve his car after it was towed, despite him having a permit to park in the lot. The local towing company, T&J towing, contends that the permit was not visible.
So, Kurtz took to the streets, or in this case, the web. He created a Facebook group, called Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing. The group currently has 13,573 members and counting.
So what was T&J Towing's response to the group? They sued Kurtz for $750,000 for defamation, arguing that Kurtz cost the towing company business and damaged its reputation.
Richard Burnham, the attorney for T&J Towing, waxed philosophical about the case. "[It] raises interesting questions ... What are the rights to free speech? And even if what he said is false, which I am convinced, is his conduct the proximate cause of our loss?"
As Sarah Randag of the ABA Journal reports, this is not the first time that courts have dealt with social media business defamation cases. Last year Horizon Group Management in Chicago sued tenant Amanda Bonnen after she tweeted disparaging remarks about the company, accusing them of thinking it is "okay" for their tenants to sleep in moldy apartments. The case was dismissed in January.
To prevent the strategy of using lawsuits to stifle legal commentary by sinking a critic deep into legal fees even if the court will eventually toss the case, many states have enacted laws against SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Though Michigan isn't one of them, many states have anti-SLAPP provisions which require the business to pay the defendant's legal fees if the case is dismissed.
For now, Justin Kurtz's Facebook group remains buzzing with comments, and he appears defiant in the face of T&J's lawsuit. He indicated that he has no intentions of retracting his statement or removing the group from Facebook.
- Venting Online, Consumers Can Find Themselves in Court (NYTimes)
- More and More Lawsuits Over Rants on the Web that Blast Businesses (ABA Journal)
- Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing (Facebook)
- SLAPP: Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (FindLaw's LawBrain)