A California appeals court handed down a mixed bag of a decision this week. A pediatric dentist filed a libel suit in Santa Clara County over a bad review by the father of one of her patients that was placed on the review website Yelp. The dentist, Dr. Yvonne Wong, sued Yelp, the father, Tai Jing and his wife Jia Ma for libel. The suit against Yelp was dismissed as were the claims against Ma. However, the libel suit against Tai Jing will proceed.
Tai Jing posted a scathing Yelp review of Dr. Wong regarding her use of silver filings and her use of laughing gas on his son, reports MediaPost. Jing also wrote in his review of Wong that among other complaints, she never warned him that the filing material could contain mercury and that other patients should "[a]void her like a disease!" In 2009, Wong filed suit.
The appeals court touched on several complex issues, including Yelp's right to appeal when they had been dismissed as a party to the suit by Wong, and the evidence or lack thereof against Ma. The holding with the most impact, however, is that Yelp is protected under the anti-SLAPP law against claims from Wong.
In this case, the website had protection against Dr. Wong's claims because one of the topics discussed in the Yelp review was the presence of mercury in children's fillings. This is a topic of public importance and debate, so the court found the anti-SLAPP statute applied. Anti-SLAPP statutes in general are meant to protect against defamation lawsuits that are brought to punish, deter, or silence public debate on topics of importance. Even though Wong claimed the real topic was a dispute over her treatment methods and a private matter, the court held Yelp was protected.
As MediaPost notes, Yelp could have also been protected under section 230 of the the federal Communications Decency Act which protects online hosting sites like Yelp from suits for defamatory content posted by individual users. However, the anti-SLAPP statute allows for compensation for attorney's fees. The CDA does not.
This does not mean that individuals should feel free to make defamatory statements, even over a matter of public interest. Wong's case for defamation against Jing was allowed to proceed.