Articles Posted in Product Disparagement

With all the hand-wringing over fake news these days, many are wondering whether it isn’t actionable libel to publish false news accounts. Take “Pizzagate,” for example. Shortly before the election, rumors began circulating on the Internet that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta, were running a child sex-slave operation in the back of family-friendly Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. As ridiculous as that sounds, the message reached a massive audience on social media and before long, the restaurant was receiving death threats and other threatening messages on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. People started trashing the business on Google and Yelp. Eventually, a young man from North Carolina traveled to the restaurant to personally investigate the story and rescue any sex slaves in need of his assistance. He brought an assault rifle with him. It’s probably safe to assume that Comet’s business has suffered.

If Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-slave ring, she isn’t doing it at Comet Ping Pong: the story was pure fiction. So what’s a business like Comet to do? Defamation claims are usually about the protection of individuals’ personal reputations. In this situation, false news articles were being published about Comet’s business itself rather than about any particular individual associated with the business. In short, it doesn’t matter. Corporations are treated like people in most contexts, and this one is no different. Comet could conceivably sue for trade libel, common-law defamation, tortious interference, or business conspiracy, among other claims. Let’s focus on the commercial defamation angle.

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Before rushing to the courthouse to sue someone for libel or slander, there are a number of things one should consider. For one thing, even if no counterclaim is filed, filing a defamation action opens the door to all kinds of personal details about your life that you may prefer to keep private. To prevail, a plaintiff needs to prove that the defamatory statement was false. The defendant–the person who made the statement–doesn’t need to prove anything. Think about what that means as a practical matter. If someone Tweeted to a million followers that you are some kind of sexual deviant and that you had sex with a wildebeest (and assuming that the Tweet was understood and believed by readers as a literal statement and not as mere rhetorical hyperbole), and you decide to sue for defamation, you will need to prove that you did NOT actually have sex with a wildebeest. How does one prove such a thing? Well, generally by presenting evidence to the jury about what kind of sex life you DO have so that they can see that you are not the sort of person who would do such a thing. Or maybe you throw in some evidence about your documented fear of antelope. Either way, it could be embarrassing.

There’s also the libel-proof doctrine to consider. Because the tort of defamation is concerned primarily with damage caused to one’s reputation, some courts have held that when a plaintiff’s reputation is already so tarnished at the time a defamatory statement is published that it would be virtually impossible to make the reputation worse, the plaintiff will be deemed “libel proof” and the case will be dismissed prior to trial. If the defendant claims you are libel proof, think of what fun the discovery process will be for you, as the defendant goes about digging for evidence about how bad your reputation already is.
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The First Amendment protects anonymous speech, including online reviews of products and services written by people using fake names. The right to anonymous speech, however, is not absolute. Defamatory speech, whether or not anonymous, is not entitled to protection, as there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact. If someone pretending to be a former customer writes a defamatory review on Yelp, Amazon, or some other consumer-review site, but doesn’t disclose his or her real name, how does the business owner go about identifying the individual so that the individual can be held accountable? The answer lies in Section 8.01-407.1 of the Code of Virginia, which sets forth a specific procedure for uncovering the identities of people who communicate anonymously over the Internet.

The proper application of this statute was recently discussed in Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, a case arising out of Alexandria. As of October 2012, Yelp’s site contained seventy-five reviews about Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, many of them critical. Included among these reviews were assertions by anonymous authors claiming to have been charged for work never performed and claiming that “precious rugs were shrunk.” Hadeed sued the anonymous authors for defamation, alleging that the reviewers were never actual customers of Hadeed.

After filing the lawsuit, Hadeed promptly issued a subpoena duces tecum to Yelp, demanding the production of documents that would enable Hadeed to identify the authors of the allegedly defamatory reviews. Yelp objected, arguing that Hadeed had not complied with the requirements of Section 8.01-407.1. Hadeed revised its subpoena to comply with the statute, but Yelp continued to object and refused to comply. On a motion to compel compliance, the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria held that Hadeed’s subpoena satisfied the requirements of both the statute and the First Amendment, and ordered Yelp to disclose the information. Yelp refused, and was held in contempt. It then appealed that ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction to consider appeals of civil contempt orders), arguing that the First Amendment requires a showing of merit on both the law and facts Rugs.jpgbefore a subpoena duces tecum to identify an anonymous speaker can be enforced. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding in a case of first impression that Section 8.01-407.1 is not unconstitutional and that it alone provides the unmasking standard in Virginia.

Emily Hughes is an unhappy customer of Johnson Utilities, which supplies water to parts of Arizona. Emily posted various complaints to a Facebook group in which she described “yellow water” coming from her faucets and expressed dismay about low water pressure. Until recently, I had never heard of Emily Hughes, Johnson Utilities, or the allegations about yellow water being supplied to certain residents of Arizona. But Johnson Utilities decided that the appropriate means to address the situation was to sue Emily for defamation. That caused the story to show up in my news feed, mostly in the form of opinion pieces mocking the lawsuit.

The reason the lawsuit strikes so many as silly is that Emily Hughes didn’t just write about the yellow water entering her home, she took a video of it. The video clearly shows yellow water coming out of a faucet. She uploaded the video to a Facebook page entitled “Citizens Against Johnson Utilities”–a page ostensibly formed by citizens concerned with the local water provider’s environmental practices as well as low water pressure in the area. The site was renamed “The San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates” in August. CBS 5 News included Emily’s video in a televised report about consumer complaints regarding the water supplied by Johnson Utilities.

At first glance, the complaint appears to have very little merit. Johnson Utilities complains about things that are generally not actionable in a court of law, like Emily expressing “extreme hostility” towards Johnson Utilities, going on a “ceaseless vendetta,” and posting various “disparaging statements” on Facebook. Johnson even makes the yellow water.jpgodd allegation that Emily’s opposition to a rate increase was part of a scheme to defame the company. The lawsuit suggests she would “oppose any rate changes that could be beneficial” to the utility company, without recognizing the possibility that Emily might just prefer not to have to pay more money for water.

Recmad, an apparently straitlaced company from Portugal, disapproves of the music video for “Danza Kuduro.” Why? Because the artists in the video are shown partying on Recmad’s yacht with a bunch of scantily clad women. In a lawsuit filed in Florida last month, Recmad claims it never agreed to allow the defendants to show the yacht in the music video, and that the video implies that Recmad advocates and engages in a “fast, lavish, over-the-top lifestyle.” Recmad seeks to recover damages for defamation by implication.

The suit, recently removed to federal court, is against UMG Recordings and other music industry businesses and professionals. According to the allegations of the complaint, defendants Don Omar and Lucenzo began filming the music video for “Danza Kuduro” in early 2010 on the Caribbean island of St. Martin. The video features Omar and Lucenzo living the high life with yachts, mansions, fast cars and “women in bikinis.” According to the complaint, Le Reve is “prominently featured in the video,” but apparently is shown only briefly, starting at the 2:15 mark. The video shows Omar and Lucenzo approaching some women on Le Reve, who then disembark to join Omar and Lucenzo on another yacht.

Recmad contends that the video became a worldwide hit, topping the music charts in numerous countries and that defendants have profited substantially through the sale and marketing of the song and video. According to Recmad, the defendants’ unauthorized use falsely implies that the owners of Le Reve engage in “wrongful and suspect conduct.” The crux of Remcad’s argument is that juxtaposition of its yacht with a lifestyle it does not condone resulted in defamation by implication. Recmad claims that it has “suffered damages” but does not specify those damages.

Duck Creek Energy, an Ohio oil and gas development company, has sued two local environmental activists, Tish O’Dell and Michelle Aini, for various claims arising from their publication of statements characterizing Duck Creek’s product as “a product of fracking.” Duck Creek claims the defendants are liable for (1) defamation per se; (2) tortious interference with existing business relationships; and (3) tortious interference with prospective business relationships. According to Duck Creek, the activists acted with malice and/or negligently disseminated false information, even after being apprised of the true facts.

Duck Creek manufactures and distributes AquaSalina, a salt solution used for de-icing roads. AquaSalina is made from raw brine, a byproduct of oil and gas exploration, which Duck Creek purifies at a plant in Cleveland. It has been used for years because its heavy salt concentration works on surfaces in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, a liquid solution made with rock salt only works in temperatures down to about twenty three degrees Fahrenheit. AquaSalina was environmentally tested in 2004 and found to be safe.

The Complaint alleges that shortly after an article appeared on Cleveland.com discussing the effectiveness of AquaSalina, O’Dell sent a “Dear Neighbors” email to various recipients, including the mayor of Brecksville, Ohio. Brecksville was an AquaSalina customer. In her Fracking.jpgemail, O’Dell characterized AquaSalina as “waste fracking fluids” and criticized the reporter for failing to mention toxic chemicals and radioactive material in liquid from fracking. She encouraged the email recipients to read other articles she attached, which, Duck Creek claims, had nothing to do with AquaSalina. O’Dell allegedly continued to claim, at public meetings, that AquaSalina was environmentally unsafe. Brecksville thereafter decided not to use the product. O’Dell and another member of an environmental group also allegedly warned a second city to “stop spreading carcinogens on our streets” which, Duck Creek asserts, refers to AquaSalina.

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