Why Suing Your Critics Is Not Always a Good Customer-Relations Strategy

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.

There is, however, more to the lawsuit than first meets the eye. Johnson Utilities claims it is “impossible” that they delivered yellow water to Ms. Hughes. After the story aired, Johnson says it tested the water of its customers surrounding Ms. Hughes and also interviewed them. Johnson found only acceptable water, and no customer reported having yellow water. Based on this investigation, Johnson claims that Ms. Hughes “deliberately staged” the yellow-water demonstration to CBS 5 News for the purpose of harming Johnson’s reputation, or that the discoloration was “caused by Defendant’s own pipes or appliances.” The former is a pretty bold allegation, but if Johnson can prove that Ms. Hughes manipulated the water color herself, then that could very well support a claim.

The complaint also alleges that Ms. Hughes stated that “George Johnson does not run an honest business,” that he “used bribery and intimidation to shut down groups and individuals opposed to his business,” and that she falsely implied that the water is poisonous and causes miscarriages. These statements may also be sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

Still, Johnson Utilities is going to have an uphill battle. News reports suggest that numerous other people have complained about the quality of the water supplied by Johnson Utilities. Johnson is going to have to prove that Ms. Hughes did more than just post a video showing what the water looks like in her home. They will have to prove that she is spreading false information about the company. Whether they can do that remains to be seen.


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