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A good read: Could criticizing a local business on Facebook get you sued?

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That’s what happened to a guy in Kalamazoo, Mich. The New York Times has an interesting story:

After a towing company hauled Justin Kurtz’s car from his apartment complex parking lot, despite his permit to park there, Mr. Kurtz, 21, a college student in Kalamazoo, Mich., went to the Internet for revenge. Outraged at having to pay $118 to get his car back, Mr. Kurtz created a Facebook page called “Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing.” Within two days, 800 people had joined the group, some posting comments about their own maddening experiences with the company. T&J filed a defamation suit against Mr. Kurtz, claiming the site was hurting business and seeking $750,000 in damages.

Web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Yelp have given individuals a global platform on which to air their grievances with companies. But legal experts say the soaring popularity of such sites has also given rise to more cases like Mr. Kurtz’s, in which a business sues an individual for posting critical comments online.

It sounds as if California has protections against what’s called a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation, or Slapp, in which lawsuits are used as an intimidation technique to silence critics. But I’m sure as online opinion aggregators and social media sites grow ever more powerful, we’ll be seeing more push-back from businesses.

Photo/ New York Times

Responses to "A good read: Could criticizing a local business on Facebook get you sued?"

mdub420 says:

i agree with the towing company. i think they are in the right. people need to watch what they say while they are standing on their soapboxes. maybe i should take my own advice LOL!!

Heather says:

I disagree. If a business had a habit of screwing over people in my community, I’d want to know.

Famous says:

I think the kid got it right in the last line of the story: “It’s the power of the Internet, man.”

More information is never a bad thing, and there is already protection from the big stuff (it’s called libel). Everything else is ego and ass-covering. Do a good job and treat people fairly and you should be fine.

Maggie says:

There’s this fine line between slander/defamation and honest critiques of how local businesses handle themselves–this wasn’t an isolated incident because others who had experience with that same towing company had their own stories to share.. I don’t think the individual should be held accountable for starting the Facebook page (if the towing company had a better sense of humor they could have started a page to counter those allegations, right?). There are so many Facebook groups (and other networking site accounts) either for or against something, whether it be a business, person, or perspective. So freaking what? I think the $750,000 in damages is pure BS. An arbitrary number that must’ve sounded good to the company. This country is far to quick to run to court anyway. It’s embarrassing what Americans sue over. (my hot coffee burnt me because I’m a moron, wahhh, I deserve obscene amounts of money now)..

Bee says:

I agree with Heather….there has been too many times that I have been screwed over because I’m a female with car trouble….I’d rather know which businesses are fair and run their business honestly as compared to which businesses are just out to rape me for as much money as possible.

Donald Munro says:

One of the issues of this particular story is that we’re dealing with a towing company. I bet if you compiled a list of the most loathed — and most ripe for corruption — businesses in the U.S., local tow companies would be near the top. Local governments are complicit in a system in which the city gets a cut of each outrageous tow fee and has little incentive to make sure the program is administered fairly. Sure, there are lots of cars that need (and deserve) to be towed. But there are many more that become abuses of the towing process. Did you know that in Fresno, if your car is stolen and it’s recovered, you have to PAY for the privilege of having it “stored” while you come to pick it up? It’d be like if you got mugged on the street and had to pay to get your purse returned. What amazes me is that paying to recover your stolen car has somehow become part of the natural order of things. We don’t even question it.

mdub420 says:

and it’s your right to know. i think there are better ways of going about it than going on facebook and screaming to the world that you just got screwed. that’s where i agree with the towing company. who the heck is this guy going on facebook and talking bad about us?

there has to be other ways to go about it. how about filing a compliant with the better business bureau?

Natali says:

In response to Donald’s comment- my car was stolen when I was a poor college student, and though it was recovered with no damage, I still ended up paying my entire insurance deductible of $500 to get it out of the impound yard it was taken to. I’d been told that if it was found, I would be contacted and have 30 minutes to pick it up prior to it being taken to impound- but it was found during the night and I was called at 8 the next morning. The “storage fee” for that time was $500.

Sorry, I know that was tangent- but I had to respond when I saw Donald bring up that point.

Stephen says:

I’m not even close to being a lawyer, but Facebook is a social media site with privacy settings and personal logins.

Defamation/Libel and Slander have to result in comments being published, not just printed out. I don’t think a personal email, no matter how many people it’s sent to, can be considered defamation or slander…it’s a person’s opinion spread personally, not published as potential fact.

I think I can create a facebook page with outright slander like “Brad Pitt is Gay” when he’s not. Brad would have to prove that the statement is false, then he’d have to prove he was hurt financially.

This tow company would have to prove the accusations are false and how they’ve been hurt financially by these falsehoods if I’m right. And even then, it’s only on Facebook…it’s not like the kid wrote a book or a news story about the tow company.

I hope the lawsuit gets thrown out quickly. There are published websites where people tell their negative stories about airlines, medicines, doctors, etc. The first amendment has to protect that, methinks.

Having said that, my choice of comedy got me ‘banned’ from the Madera Country Club by upset board members. So if the tow company wants to ban this kid and never tow his car again, go right ahead!

Maggie says:

I had no idea that is how towing companies worked with the local government. I haven’t had any experience except when I call with my AAA card for roadside service.

Natali that is ridiculous, I’m sorry to hear that occurred. It’s good information to know, if I should ever find myself in that same position.

Mike Reith says:

Living in the nation with the most attorneys per capita, and many of them being pettifoggers, all of this doesn’t surprise me. Oh what a better world it would be without lawyers.

Haha! says:

I SO AGREE!!!
I mean, if this towing company is in the habit of ripping people off and towing their cars for no reason, how could they be suffering ANY damages at all?

loki says:

Defamation consists of a statement that may reflect poorly on an individual, published to a third party, that causes damages.

Here, there there are potential defamatory statements since they reflect poorly on the business. Since they are posted on a website, they are indeed published. Since they reflect poorly on the business, damages can be presumed.

However, truth is always a defense to defamation. If the statements the defendant made are in fact true, then a defamation claim will ultimately fail.

Also, it appears as if the plaintiff is a corporation. Since they are a business for profit, they can be considered a public persona, and they receive less legal protection because, per the 1st amendment, we want to allow citizens the ability to freely speak; essentially, we do not want to chill speech. Thus, a higher standard, actual malice, would need to be proven in order for plaintiff’s defamation claim to succeed. And, again, truth would be an ultimate defense to defamation.

Finally, yeah, there are some state statutes that protect against strategic lawsuits (SLAPPS). If defendant is engaged in a constitutionally protected activity (speaking, in which they are), and the lawsuit was made entirely to intimidate (perhaps), then defendant may file an anti-slapp motion, and, if they succeed, would win the case immediately, as well as attorney’s fees. It is unclear whether Michagan has a comparable Anti-SLAPP statute to California’s.

Either way….. yeah, who knows. I hate tow truck companies.