Here’s Exhibit A for why it’s generally a bad idea to sue someone for an online review.

“They need to think before they post. She needs to learn — people need to learn that there are consequences for their actions.”  Attorney Keith Nguyen shared this statement with a reporter when asked if he felt guilty about suing a young nursing student for libel. [1]

The reason the lawyer was suing his former client: she posted a nasty online review about him.

Read on.

Lan Cai was a 20-year-old nursing student, nursing injuries after a car accident left her with a hurt back – the catalyst that led Cai to the doors of Nguyen’s law firm. She learned about the firm through a relative. She noticed the law firm had many bad online reviews, but shrugged it off since she was referred.

Cai said the lawyer-client relationship soured quickly. No one at the firm knew where her car was taken after the accident, nor when she could expect it back. She had trouble arranging an audience with them, and when she did see anyone at the firm, time spent was short. The final straw occurred when Nguyen and his associates came to visit Cai at her home. She claimed they entered her room while she was still sleeping – in her underwear.

A law firm that still does house calls. That’s old school.

Cai moved on and found a different attorney to help settle the case.

But when she took to the Internet to warn her community (first Facebook, eventually Yelp), Nguyen demanded she take down her posts or “[his] office [would] have no choice but to file a suit.”

Cai doubled down, spreading her warning to more websites.

Nguyen kept his word.

The promised suit was soon filed. The firm asked for over $200,000. A stiff amount for a student. A stiff amount for anyone.

But when it closed, Cai and her defense team walked away $27,000 richer.

What happened?

She hired a good lawyer and refused to be bullied.

And she cashed in with something called SLAPP.

Huh?

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Anti-SLAPP laws have been around for a while, and were designed to protect defendants from businesses who use litigious gerrymandering to silence their online critics. Not every state has SLAPP laws on their books. Texas does. And Cai lives in Texas.

Nguyen claimed Cai’s reviews were embellished, and her negative comments injured his firm’s reputation. But the cornerstone of Nguyen’s argument, that the offensive reviews constituted libel, would likely have crumbled anyway.

Unless the firm could prove the content of the reviews were both false and damaged its reputation, the libel accusation would not hold. The firm was unable to prove Cai’s reviews false, and when Nguyen argued the reviews were damaging his firm’s reputation, Cai’s lawyer countered that the firm was already drowning in bad reviews. One more rotten review had negligible impact.

The judge delivered a verdict of $27k for reimbursement of legal fees. Ouch.

Since the case closed, Nguyen’s firm has endured a deluge of bad reviews – most of them coming from outsiders who had no history with the firm. Bad reviews from burned clients are bad enough. But bad reviews from people you don’t even know? No thanks.

So, what’s to learn?

First, be careful about house calls.

Next, the reality is not every patient or client receives great service. If you or your staff drop the ball, do what you can to make things right. Litigation should be used sparingly and only in the most unusual of circumstances. The better approach to an unfair online review is dilution. The solution to pollution is dilution.  Happy patients and clients should be telling their story. That will drown out the stench of a rotten review.

Taking a losing case to court isn’t worth $27,000. Taking a proactive approach to your online reputation can pay dividends, though, especially if you are a physician. If you are a doctor interested in leveraging your online reputation to grow your practice and treat more patients, visit eMerit.biz to learn why doctor reputation management is our specialty.

[1]Law Firm’s Lawsuit Against Student Over Bad Yelp Review Backfires Badly. The Houston Press. November 30, 2016. http://www.houstonpress.com/news/law-firms-lawsuit-against-student-over-bad-yelp-review-backfires-badly-8986863. Accessed December 6, 2016.