Trip Advisor’s “Dirtiest Hotels” List Constitutes Non-Actionable, Protected Opinion
For business owners, online reviews are now a fact of life. And a recent Sixth Circuit decision demonstrates the difficulty of attempting to legally challenge the publication of negative online reviews.
In Seaton v. TripAdvisor, LLC, the owner of the Grant Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, sued the online travel site for naming his hotel No. 1 on its “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list. He claimed that TripAdvisor used a flawed methodology to tabulate its rankings and therefore falsely accused Grant Resort of being America’s dirtiest hotel. He sued TripAdvisor for defamation and false light invasion of privacy, seeking $10 million dollars in damages.
TripAdvisor moved to dismiss the complaint. It argued that its list was entitled to First Amendment protection because it reflected nothing more than its users’ subjective opinions. The Eastern District of Tennessee granted the motion to dismiss and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. The appellate court concluded that Grand Resort did not “state a plausible claim for defamation because TripAdvisor’s placement of Grand Resort on the ‘2011 Dirtiest Hotels’ list is not capable of being defamatory.” Rather, “placement on the ‘2011 Dirtiest Hotels’ list constitutes protected opinion because the list employs loose, hyperbolic language and its general tenor undermines any assertion by [Grand Resort] that the list communicates anything more than the opinion of Trip Advisor’s users.” The full text of the opinion is available here.
Obviously, online reputations are extremely important, and it is critical for business owners to be aware of, and do what they can to control, what people are saying about their business online. Legal challenges to online reviews, however, have a generally poor track record. Thus, the lesson of the Seaton case: a business owner’s time and resources would likely be better invested in taking steps to change customers’ opinions rather than attempting to stifle them through legal proceedings.