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Think twice before writing that online review – it could land you in court

Next time you're tempted to badmouth a business on Yelp or TripAdvisor, better call your lawyer first.

Legal council can help explain the fine line between freedom of expression and outright slander – a distinction that is increasingly landing online reviewers in court.

Last week, a jury in Fairfax, Va., ruled that a homeowner's Yelp review of a general contractor was defamatory, Yahoo reports.

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In 2011, Jane Perez posted a review that allegedly accused employees of contractor Christopher Dietz of damaging her home and making off with her jewellery. Dietz sued for defamation, asking $750,000 in damages. But although he won his case, Dietz was not awarded the cash. The jury decided that in his Yelp rebuttal to Perez's review, Dietz had slandered Perez in turn.

Neither got a cent in damages, the Washington Post reports.

But this and other recent cases should be a wake-up to haters everywhere – anonymous or not.

In early January, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled that First Amendment rights did not cover deliberately false statements allegedly made by seven Yelp users who trashed a carpet-cleaning service, the Washington Times reports.

The court ordered Yelp to reveal the identity of the seven reviewers so that business owner Joe Hadeed could determine whether the reviews were from actual customers.

Lawyers for Yelp argued that the Virginia Court of Appeals ruling failed "to adequately protect free speech rights on the Internet" and was an attempt "to silence online critics." (Good luck with that, Yelp.) America has a reputation as a litigious society, of course (although some argue that's a myth).

But Canadians should also be warned. Last fall, a Quebec hotel sued a former guest for $95,000 in damages over an online review he wrote on TripAdvisor, complaining of bed bugs.

So far, there's been no ruling on the TripAdvisor case. But it wouldn't hurt to think before you Yelp.

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