Small businesses are not immune from negative/false online reviews. Thankfully, however, jurors are becoming more and more protective of the rights and reputations of small businesses, and are showing a willingness to award large damages when reputations are damaged online.
A very recent example is the million-dollar plus jury verdict from Dallas County, Texas. The case involved not a Fortune 500 company, but a prominent Dallas photographer, and a couple who hired her to photograph their wedding.
Andrea Polito and her photography company sued Neely and Andrew Moldovan in early 2015. According to the lawsuit, the Moldovans sought Andrea’s services to photograph their wedding. After the wedding, a dispute arose over costs and the delivery time of the photos. Apparently, the Moldovans were upset because the contract required them to purchase a $125 photo album before the photos would be delivered. Not happy with the services, the Moldovans allegedly began a campaign of disparagement against the business, including negative news stories, blog postings and postings on Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Among other things, they accused Polito of “holding their pictures hostage”, and claimed she “cheated”, “scammed” and “blatantly stole money while holding pictures for ransom”.
While doing this, Moldovan apparently engaged in social media conversations, in which she bragged that she was “pretty sure [Polito’s] business is done” and that she was “hoping that [their] story makes the news and completely ruins [Polito’s] business”.
Polito sued, alleging defamation, business disparagement, tortious interference and conspiracy. She claimed the Moldovan’s acted with malice, and requested an award of punitive damages.
After surviving a Motion to Dismiss under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute, the case went to trial. The jury found that the Moldovans committed all the acts alleged in the suit. In addition to $355,000 awarded for damage to reputation and mental anguish, the jury awarded $525,000 in past and future lost profits and $200,000 in punitive damages, based on what they found to be actual malice on the part of the Moldovans.