When reviews attack...How to avoid a libel lawsuit when critiquing your contractor

Critiquing your contractor

There's no getting around the fact that businesses are uber-sensitive when it comes to reviews...and contractors are no exception. With all due respect to all the great contractors out there who are honest, and do great work every time, a few bad apples are great at spoiling things for the bunch. Even when it seems that dirty deeds have been done dirt cheap (or maybe not so cheap), you have to be careful about how you broadcast the fact to the general public. Before you lay the smack down, over a less-than-satisfying experience, consider a few simple bits of advice that will help you express your feelings and protect yourself from a libel suit worth more than the value of your home.

Let's say you recently hired Joe Blow's Perfect Painting to recoat your kitchen and dining room, and ended up with unpainted areas and paint drips that you believe were intentionally concealed under carpets or behind furniture. Fuming, you decide to make your views known online to anyone in the northern hemisphere who might consider hiring Joe Blow for their next paint job. You not only want people to know about your bad experience, but want to tell them what a miserable person Joe Blow is, put him out of business, and maybe even throw in a negative comment about his mama while you're at it.  

Joe Blow will undoubtedly see this as a personal attack with the intent of destroying his livelihood. He feels that through the use of print media, you deliberately sought to get revenge on him for real or imagined slights by attacking his character and affecting his livelihood. This, my friends, is called libel. (Had it been a verbal tirade, it would have been called slander.) Joe Blow now has the right to sue your pants off for defamation of character and loss of business. Even if Joe's paint job was really substandard, your ill-penned tongue-lashing could leave you holding the (very expensive) bag.

The best thing to remember is to be mindful of how you craft your review. This means being truthful, and not getting personal. If you can't prove that Joe Blow is a horrible human who is intentionally going around playing Jack the Dripper with unsuspecting homeowners, everyone will think that you are the horrible one. Your review should reflect strong opinions, rather than present "facts" that you are unable to back up (ex: Joe Blow is the world's worst painter because he gets spots all over your hardwood floors. He should never be allowed to touch a paint roller again.)

Always base reviews on your opinion of the work ...NOT the person who did the work. Most tasks have some sort of established criteria that allow people to judge their quality (ex: I discovered that the job was incomplete when I found an unpainted spot on the wall behind my sofa which closely resembled the silhouette of my sleeping cat Pookie.) Base your review on the fact that there is physical proof that part of the job is unfinished...not your anger at Joe's apparent lack of concern for cat-shaped bare spots.(Ex: Joe Blow is a crook who tries to rip off customers by getting hiding feline-shaped portions of bare wall behind large and difficult-to-move items of furniture.)

Be sure that you can provide proof of anything you allege. It's not libel if something is true and you can back it up with tangible evidence (ex: a clear photograph of the Pookie-shaped bare spot). Don't simply assume that because there is a bare spot that Joe Blow was trying to shortchange you. There is always the chance that he didn't wish to incur the wrath of Pookie by waking him up, meant to paint the spot later and simply forgot to. It is entirely possible that there was an oversight, and Joe Blow would have willingly remedied the problem at no charge, had you not gone ahead with your housepainter crucifixion plans.

You can also be accused of libel through the misuse of humor or sarcasm if what you say humiliates someone, embarrasses them, or damages their integrity.  (Ex: Telling the world that "hiring Joe Blow to paint your kitchen is probably a worse decision than wearing a "guilty" t-shirt for a mug shot.) Stick to the facts and use them to support you opinions (ex: I felt the job to be substandard due to the presence of paint drops that I discovered on the floor after the work was completed.) This paves the way for the public to consider either the possibility that Joe Blow is a terrible painter -OR- the whole thing was simply an accident. It also gives you the chance to express your opinions openly without looking like Attila the customer.

Keep in mind that when the shoe is on the other foot (Joe Blow's foot, that is) he will need to prove that you caused actual damage to his business and that you intended to do so. Libel can be difficult to prove if he can't show a court that people have begun to avoid his services as a direct result of your review. He must also be able to prove that your words have caused his bottom line to suffer.

There are certainly dishonest people out there who do substandard work, overcharge customers, steal from the homes they are contracted to work in, or watch adult movies on a customer's TV while on the clock, but you still have to be careful how you voice your opinions. Take a step back and consider how your words will be interpreted before you post them online for the world to see.

Note: If you are ever accused of libel, contact an attorney immediately. The longer you wait, the greater chance you have of weakening your case through inaction.

Posted by: Ahmed Muztaba
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