San Franciscan Christopher Norberg went to a chiropractor after being injured in a car accident in 2006. After a disagreement with the chiropractor over billing, he posted a negative review of the business on Yelp suggesting that the doctor was dishonest. Now he is facing a defamation lawsuit that could chill self-expression on the popular gripe Web site.
"If Christopher loses then anyone on Yelp who writes a negative review better be careful," said Michael Blacksburg, an attorney representing Norberg. "This strikes at the heart of Yelp's business model and other Web sites that provide a bulletin board for people to state what they think of businesses in their community."
"This is clearly Christopher Norberg's version of conversations with the doctor relating to a billing dispute and his opinion of how the doctor was behaving," Blacksburg said on Tuesday. "This is clear opinion that falls squarely within constitutionally protected speech."
Eric Nordskog, the attorney for chiropractor Steven Biegel, said the case comes down to whether Norberg's comments are considered statements of fact or opinions.
"Dr. Biegel has no problem with people expressing their views and opinions about his service," Nordskog said. "But there is a line where if someone, even on Yelp or on the Internet, publishes a false statement of fact as opposed to an opinion, then that person can and should be held responsible for their words."
The two sides are scheduled to sit down for court-required mediation on Friday, but Norberg said he isn't optimistic that the case will be resolved then. A March 2 trial date is on the San Francisco Superior Court calendar.
The lawsuit, filed February 25, 2008, alleges that Biegel has suffered loss of reputation and business as a result of the review and seeks punitive damages. According to the lawsuit, the review allegedly contained false statements and inaccuracies that suggested Biegel was dishonest and accused him of fraudulent billing practices.
Billing dispute at center
Norberg was treated twice by Biegel before a friend of his told him he had had billing problems with Biegel's office, he wrote in his review. Norberg, who said he did not have medical insurance, was not asked to pay for the visits because Biegel's office said it would try to bill his auto insurance company instead, the review said. Even though the insurance company refused to pay, Norberg did not initially receive a bill from Biegel, he said.
In the meantime, Norberg began getting treatment from another chiropractor who suggested he sue the driver of the car that hit him, Norberg's review said. Norberg eventually settled the case, the review said.
After learning that Biegel's bill to the auto insurer was $550 instead of $125, which was the amount quoted for two visits, Norberg called Biegel, his Yelp review said. Norberg said that Biegel demanded he pay $550 during that phone call, but then said he would waive the fee entirely, according to the review. Biegel later called Norberg and explained that his office bills insurers at a higher rate than patients who pay for service directly because of the higher office costs in dealing with the paperwork and delays in receiving payment, court documents said.
Biegel's office then made a call to Norberg's auto insurance company and learned about the settlement and then called Norberg and demanded he pay $125, the lawyers said. Norberg paid the bill and posted a review of Biegel with a one-star rating on Yelp on November 16, 2007.
"I didn't feel comfortable with their tactics," Norberg wrote in his review after earlier writing that the office had been aggressive in trying to get him to come back for treatment before the billing dispute. Biegel "couldn't give me a straight answer as to why the jump in price...He called me back to cover his ass...(and says) he runs a business and would stick it to insurance companies," the review said.
"I don't think good business means charging people whatever you feel like hoping they'll pay without a fuss. Especially considering that I found a much better, honest chiropractor," Norberg wrote at the end of his review.
In a letter sent to Norberg dated December 7, 2007, Biegel asked Norberg to remove the review, saying it "unjustly characterizes me as unethical and dishonest" and attributed the dispute to a misunderstanding of his office procedures.
"I did not do anything unethical or illegal in our entire dealings," Biegel wrote. "It has never been my policy or intention to take advantage of an individual or insurance company."
On January 8, Norberg got a letter from Biegel's lawyer threatening him with a lawsuit over the review and two days later Norberg removed the review and rating from the site. The following month, Biegel sued.
Biegel, who was a "sponsored" advertiser on Yelp and encouraged customers to write reviews on the site, received about as many referrals per month from Yelp while the review was up as before, but fewer after the lawsuit was filed, Blacksburg said, citing Yelp documents.
A Yelp spokeswoman said she did not know of any other cases in which a business sued a Yelp user over a negative review.
"We won't comment on specific litigation, but in general, lawsuits like this are pretty uncommon," Yelp spokeswoman Stephanie Ichinose wrote in an e-mail.
"Most businesses engage constructively with customers who haven't had a good experience," she wrote. "When that doesn't work, they recognize that they can't always make one hundred percent of their customers happy one hundred percent of the time, and don't risk the huge expense and potential negative publicity that comes with suing one of their customers."
Accusing a business owner of unethical conduct would constitute defamation unless it is true, said Aaron Morris, an Internet defamation attorney in Santa Ana, Calif. However, if the defendant can successfully prove that posting the statement was a matter of public good then the plaintiff would have to show malice and that the defendant knew the statement was false or had reason to believe it was false, he added.
"You can have something that would normally constitute defamation but if it's a matter of public interest it is entitled to protected status," Morris said. "Some courts will say that if you are posting it in a forum where people would be interested, they are going to Yelp specifically to find out about the doctor...then it enjoys a heightened level of privilege."
Not much legal precedent has been set on Internet defamation involving consumer review Web sites. Two similar cases decided in August in California had conflicting outcomes. In European Spa v. Kerber, the First District Court of Appeal ruled that negative reviews of a spa posted on Yelp and Yahoo did not meet the public interest element to merit special status in a defamation lawsuit, Morris wrote in an entry on his blog. In a separate case, Kim v. IAC/InterActive Corp., the Second District Court of Appeal granted an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion filed by someone who had posted a negative review of a dentist on Citysearch.
"If enough of the cases come back where individual posters are being sued, that could chill the desire of people to go on and post their opinion," Morris said. "But all they have to do to protect themselves is to make sure there is some truth to what they are saying."
Updated 1:40 a.m. PST Jan. 7 with background on other cases.