Over the past three years The Wealthy Dentist has covered stories regarding negative online reviews and how dentists should handle them as part of an overall dental marketing strategy.
We’ve agreed that no one should be allowed to post an anonymous reviews against a dentist, because the costs to a dental practice can be high, and the dentist has little hope of investigating the circumstances to turn the situation around.
Not to mention the real possibility that the dentist might be dealing with an anonymous derogatory review that is actually fake.
The best a dentist could do was soften the impact of the negative review online is by responding with positive attributes about his or her dental practice. Any attempt to sue over a negative review always seemed to favor the poster of the review — not the recipient.
But it seems the courts are finally starting to take notice.
Recently, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a $150,000 putative damage reward to a plaintiff for defamation caused by 3 fake online reviews.
In 1999, Peter Mitchell and Michael Hosto co-founded a property damage restoration company. Their restoration business was so successful that in 2003 they created BoardUp, Inc., a lead generation service for restoration companies covering five area codes that encompassed significant portions of central and eastern Missouri and the southwestern portion of Illinois.
The partners successfully ran the companies for 4 years until a deterioration in their relationship and the commencement of litigation forced Mitchell and Hosto to dissolve their business associations by entering into a Settlement Agreement in 2007. As a result of the agreement Hosto ended up with BoardUp and Mitchell ended up with the restoration company.
But Hosto was apparently not happy with how the settlement came down.
Hosto went online and posted 3 fake negative reviews about Mitchell and his restoration work. According to court records the first two reviews were posted on March 31, 2008, on Google and Yahoo, respectively. In those fabricated reviews, Hosto used the names of prior customers of the restoration company to create detailed accounting of dealings with Mitchell that encouraged potential customers to avoid contracting with the company.
Here are 2 of the fake reviews:
1. 1st Review on Google (there were 2) -
Grade: F. Dealing with these people was the single biggest mistake I have ever made in my whole life. I[t] was a miserable experience and the job was done so poorly we decided to sell the house. They were great salesman [sic] but their workman [sic] were idiots and the owner was not willing to help in any way. I was so happy just to get them out of my life I paid them much more than I should have because their law firm threatened to lien my house if I disagree[d] with any part of their bill. All I can say is if they show up in your front yard in the middle of the night after your house catchs [sic] on fire, RUN! Do yourself a favor and call your insurance company and get a referal [sic] for legitimate business people.
2. Review on Yahoo -
They were a pain in the neck when I least needed one! Like the other guy [,] The Fire Works Restoration Company showed up in the middle of the night while the firemen where [sic] still putting out the fire. Their emergency board up guys were great. I liked them so much I decided maybe they weren’t so bad when a salesman from the Fire Works Restoration Company showed up the next day. Then they offered to do a “Free Estimate.” So [F]ire [W]orks was a lot higher than the other company. [T]hey got into a long drawn out fight about 1) the cost to remove the water and 2) the cost to dry out the house and 3) the cost to rebuild the house and 4) the cost to clean our stuff. The whole thing turned out to be such a nightmare that I figured it was just easier to deal with the insurance company contractor (the one these guys told me was gonna rip me off!!!!). [S]o when I told them I was not going with them then they sent me a bill even bigger than the first that the insurance company already said they didn’t want to pay. [T]he [F]ire [W]orks guy said it was a “supplement” and the first bill was not complete. [T]hey wanted an additional $1,700 more than the first bill (which was already too high!!!). Moral of the story–––people that seem nice usually are nice but not always.
As soon as Mitchell discovered the negative reviews, he initiated a “John Doe” lawsuit to ascertain the identity of the poster of the online reviews. Yahoo identified Mitchell’s ex-partner, Hosto as the person who posted the negative review on its website. Ultimately Hosto emailed Mitchell admitting that he had posted the negative reviews. Mitchell then brought a defamation suit against both Hosto personally and his company, BoardUp. In response, Hosto filed a counterclaim alleging defamation against Mitchell.
A jury agreed with Mitchell in his personal defamation claim against Hosto and only awarded him $1.00 in actual damages, but awarded him $150,000 in punitive damages. In addition, the jury rejected both Mitchell’s defamation claim against BoardUp and Hosto’s counterclaim against Mitchell.
At first review it might be hard to understand why the jury only awarded Mitchell $1.00 in actual damages, but this may be because it is difficult to prove that a potential customer who Mitchell has never done business with actually decided not to employ the services of his company based on a negative online review.
But the $150,000 in punitive damages does send the message that online posters are responsible for the negative reviews they leave online.
In a research study by Cone, Inc., they found that 80% of consumers have changed their mind about purchases based on negative information that they found online and 87% claimed that positive reviews reinforce their purchasing decisions.
In the future a dentist may very well be able to prove that his or her dental practice was adversely affected by a false negative review and will receive a more sizable actual damages amount.
Have you ever experienced a fake negative online review? How did you handle it?
For help in handling negative online reviews, see The Wealthy Dentist’s dental marketing article, Dental Marketing: A Guide for Avoiding Negative Online Reviews