A bit over a year ago, I discussed on this blog a petition that we filed in the Virginia Supreme Court seeking to set aside a preliminary injunction issued by a state trial judge in a defamation suit filed by a Maryland contractor, Christopher Dietz, against a Virginia woman, Jane Perez, who had posted reviews on Yelp and Angie's List complaining about the contractor's shoddy work as well as the disappearance of some jewelry from her home while his staff had keys to the condo. We argued that such an injunction was a prior restraint that was necessarily entered on less than a full record, and the determination of whether any relief was appropriate should await a full trial before a jury of their peers. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed, almost by return mail.
That trial was held this past week, both on Dietz's suit against Perez and Perez's own counterclaims for the damages he caused her. Perez was represented by a pro bono lawyer, the redoubtable Raymond Battocchi. Dietz spent what I am told was "a lot of money" on a succession of private attorneys. The upshot after five days of trial was a split decision -- the jury decided that each side had defamed the other, but decided to award no damages to either.
At one level, consumers may take this as something of a vindication of their right to criticize businesses, although they might be wise to make sure they have libel coverage in their homeowners' policies in case they are not as luck as Perez was to find a public-spirited lawyer willing to defend them without charge. But one can also see the jury decision as having told the parties, a pox on both your houses. It could be, in that sense, a reminder that just because someone has said something you don't like about them, and even if what they said is in some way a bit false, that does NOT mean it makes any sense to run to court and ask judges and juries to spend their time worrying about your dispute.
Indeed, the coverage in Remodeling, which covered the case intensely becuase of its significance for contractors, includes this interesting reference to Dietz' statements about the case: "Dietz said he lost five to 10 proposals worth an estimated $500,000 because of Perez's reviews, and that his business suffered as a result of visibility of the case and the subsequent appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court." It would be interesting to learn whether it was the reviews themselves, or the publicity given to the fact that this is a contractor who sued a customer, not to speak of the self-created amplification of Perez' review on his work, that had the greater impact on his business.