Fairfax jury finds dual victory in closely watched Yelp defamation case
Nearly two years ago, a D.C. contractor filed a $750,000 defamation lawsuit after a Fairfax City woman, Jane Perez, wrote scathing reviews of his work on Yelp and Angie’s List. And when Christopher Dietz leveled his own accusations in online posts responding to hers, she sought her own counterclaim for defamation.
But after a five day trial and eight hours deliberating, a Fairfax County jury essentially declared a draw Friday night when it returned a verdict that caught both sides off guard in the closely watched case: Perez and Dietz had defamed each other and neither would get a cent in damages, the jury found.
“I’m kind of shocked,” Dietz said after the verdict adding that he felt vindicated that the jury had found he was defamed by Perez’s reviews.
But Perez said claimed victory, too.
“I think freedom of speech won in this case and that’s a good message to send,” she said.
Dietz originally sued Perez in 2012, claiming her online reviews cost him $300,000 worth of business and personally humiliated him. Perez hired Dietz to spruce up her Fairfax home, but took to Yelp and Angie’s list afterwards to air a long list of complaints.
Perez alleged Dietz trespassed on her property, billed her for work he didn’t do and was he was the only other person who had a key when jewelry disappeared from her home, among other claims. Perez fumed in a scathing one-star takedown on Yelp: “Bottom line do not put yourself through this nightmare of a contractor.”
In responses posted on the review sites, Dietz said Perez had stolen his goods and services, since she never paid him for the job and did not allow him to pick up valuable items from her house.
The case received widespread media attention and was closely watched by free speech activists and businesses alike. First Amendment advocates say businesses are increasingly taking legal action over posts on review sites like Yelp in order to squelch critical – but important – consumer information.
Businesses argue they must take an aggressive stance against reviews deemed false, since Yelp and other such sites have become so influential in forming customers’ opinions. A false and damaging review can live on indefinitely and reach hundreds, thousands or even millions of customers, causing untold harm.
Perez contracted with Dietz in 2011 to perform basic cosmetic work on her newly purchased townhome, but the pair clashed over the $9,500 job. Perez ended up firing Dietz.
Armed with dozens of photos of Dietz’s work, Perez testified during the trial that Dietz’s work was slipshod. She said a closet’s sliding doors wouldn’t open, rain water seeped in through a window after an air conditioner was improperly installed and hairs were trapped beneath the varnish on a floor.
Dietz said he did all the work he was contracted to do thoroughly and professionally. When it was his turn to testify, he said Perez’s review badly damaged his eight-year-old business. Five to ten potential contracts fell through after Perez posted her remarks and business associates had to explain to clients why Dietz had such negative feedback.