Superior Moving and Storage of Pompano Beach, Florida, has a problem. Or rather, several problems. One problem is that Yelp has issued a warning about its review page, noting that it has seen some suspicious activity ["a number of positive reviews from the same IP address"] that suggest an unethical effort to skew its rating.
It has apparently decided to sue its way out of these problems. Pompano Beach's Local 10 is reporting the story of one Yelp reviewer who has been served with a defamation lawsuit by the moving company
Local 10 News viewer Scott Hooton claims he was sued for posting a negative online business review.
The Pompano Beach-based moving company behind the suit claims the statements made online were false and have sued Hooton for damages related to defamation.
"They sued me. Served papers right here on this porch," Hooton said.
The suit is seeking damages of excess of $15,000 for defamation related to what the company calls "false statements" made by Hooton in his online posting.
Where this dollar amount comes from isn't clear. It's not listed in the lawsuit's demands
However, this sort of thing isn't surprising. Many companies have tried this tactic. Most have been unsuccessful
. Then there's this:
"His lawyer offered to settle," Hooton said.
This indicates the company's claims aren't quite as solid as it would like them to be. If your case is strong, you generally don't chase filings with settlement offers. Unless you're doing them in bulk
Superior Moving has filed five libel suits
against unhappy customers in the past five months, with three of those coming in the space of three weeks.
The company is likely on unsure footing here, as it has spent much more of its time in the Broward County courthouse as a defendant. Since 1998, Superior Moving has been taken to court 31 times for everything from small claims to unpaid debts/violated contracts to fraud.
Many of the small claims cases are due to damages to belongings, homes and vehicles belonging to customers. As you can probably guess, many of the complaints being called defamatory also
deal with the same sort of damages.
But do the lawsuits have any merit? Well, we could ask David S. Weinstein, Local 10's "legal expert…"
"The First Amendment protects free speech, but it protects truthful free speech. You still can't yell 'fire' in a crowded theater if there's no fire in a crowded theater."
. Here's the extent of the claims made against Hooton.
7. On or about January 2015, Superior and Hooton executed a Guaranteed/Binding Estimate [the "Estimate"] for a residential move.
8. Thereafter, Defendant executed the following documents:
a. An Order for Service;
b. A Uniform Household Goods Bill of Lading and Freight Bill;
c. A Household Goods Descriptive Inventory;
d. A Superior Additional Terms and Conditions Interstate Moves Contract; and
e. A Superior Long Distance Addendum to Contract.
9. Pursuant to the Contract, Superior was ready willing and able to pick up the Defendant's furniture and other items, as outlined on the estimate, however, Defendant Hooton, without cause terminated the contract for the move.
10. Despite the fact that Superior was ready, willing and able to fulfill its contract, the Defendant has been defaming Superior in online postings. Defendant published the following false statements about Superior: "They get you on the hook for a low price without completely understanding the work. Then they apply additional charges until it's unbearable."
11. Each and every one of the above statements is false.
And here are the damages claimed, one of which is "we had to hire a lawyer to file these lawsuits."
12. Superior has been required to retain the undersigned counsel to represent it in this action and is obligated to pay said counsel a reasonable fee for services rendered.
13. As a direct and proximate result of the foregoing false statements, Superior has been damaged.
The claims listed above are similar to those in the other defamation lawsuits, with the only difference being the direct quotes taken from the defendants' Yelp/BBB reviews and complaints. Hooton has already responded
to Superior's complaint, denying the allegations and pointing out that he never "executed" the documents Superior said he did. Rather, he backed out of the contract when the add-ons moved the cost well above the original estimate.
Hooton's comments are obviously his opinion of the estimate process, which he viewed as bait-and-switch. It would be a stretch to call his statements defamatory, and even more of stretch to claim they caused recoupable damage.
Other suits may have (slightly) more merit that Hooton's, as other Yelp reviewers were a bit more creative in their expressions of dissatisfaction. The interesting thing is that all the suits target negative reviews at Yelp. These would be the same negative reviews that currently greet people surfing to Superior Moving's Yelp page.
If the intention of the lawsuits was to pressure reviewers to kill their negative Yelp reviews, it hasn't worked. Superior seems to have a valid complaint about Yelp itself, and yet it has made no visible effort to direct its legal efforts towards that company.
"Superior Moving & Storage was a paid advertiser with Yelp for many years. During those paid years, he maintained a "5 Star Rating" while paying substantial fees for advertisement and web presence," Manes said.
"When my client decided to discontinue advertising and maintaining a Yelp Page due to consistent increases in the fees and costs imposed on his business by Yelp, his rating suddenly dropped. Shortly after, Yelp began removing many of his 5 Star reviews stating they had violated Yelp's terms, and only publishing negative reviews."
Of course, this could just be the company's highly-subjective view of the current situation, in which certain normal Yelp actions are viewed as conspiratorial and correlative. Even if Superior's claims are true, it would be a long, expensive fight to prove it. Superior seems to realize this battle isn't worth fighting, but it's applying the same sort of pressure on its critics by filing these lawsuits -- implying an expensive legal battle awaits if the defendants aren't willing to settle.
Companies should be able to defend their reputations, but using the legal system to do it isn't the best tactic. Superior may be concerned that Yelp's review page will scare off potential customers. But acquiring a reputation as a company that will sue people for posting negative reviews can have an equally adverse effect.