from the sure,-venturing...-but-gaining-what? dept
Companies suing critics is nothing new, even if it’s generally a bad idea. Even if completely justified (which it rarely is), the move does little to improve the company’s reputation, especially if there’s any amount of media coverage. The attempt to silence the criticism usually only solidifies the aggrieved company’s link with negative phrases both in the minds of the public and search engine algorithms.
Techdirt reader ABJ sends in another story of a defamation lawsuit aimed at an online critic.
A Columbus man faces a lawsuit with potential damages of more than $1 million because of comments he made online about his experience renting at a Northwest Side apartment complex.
James Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, commented on several forums about his time at the Meridian off W. 5th Avenue. He used a comic tone to contrast the complex’s purported “luxury apartments” and his view of their reality.
At least this time, the suing company has specified exactly which of Raney’s statements it has found actionable. Its filing lists several statements made by the blogger/former tenant, including these.
• Connor is “gaming the system” by paying people to write positive reviews on apartment ratings websites.
• The company does not spend enough money for needed repairs at its properties.
• Connor “financially raped” residents with high fees.
With the truth being the most absolute defense against defamation allegations, the company will have to provide some information which refutes Raney’s claims. The company claims it isn’t trying to shut up critics, but rather attempting to address comments it feels are “untrue, malicious and defamatory.” The company is asking for “more than $25,000” per allegedly defamatory statement, of which it has named 30. According to Raney, the grand total asked for exceeds $1.5 million.
Raney’s blog details several complaints by other tenants of Connor properties, many of which allege negligent behavior by the company in response to maintenance concerns. Tenants have complained of flooding that has gone unaddressed for days on end, or hastily patched with paint or cardboard.
One former tenant has filed a personal injury lawsuit against the company after a waterlogged ceiling collapsed onto him in his bedroom. One complaint details an electrical outage in her apartment, which the maintenance crew apparently addressed by flipping the circuit breaker switch a few times and handing her a space heater to keep her powerless apartment warm (which did nothing for the food in her fridge that rotted while the maintenance crew periodically flipped switches).
The company currently holds an “A” rating at the Better Business Bureau but it’s a highly suspect “A.” (And, it must be noted, most BBB ratings can be considered suspect…) The company has fielded 312 complaints in the last 3 years, 216 of them listed as “problems with product/service.”
A class action lawsuit alleging the company’s failure to maintain a livable property at one apartment complex in Georgia alleges that Connor’s business strategy (according to its own documents) is to “flip” underperforming properties — buying and selling them within a couple of years — which gives it no incentive to maintain the property once it reaches its desired occupancy level. This lawsuit is still ongoing, 19 months and 120 docket entries down the road.
All of this does not necessarily add up to a clear picture of malfeasance on The Connor Group’s part, but filing a million-dollar lawsuit against one blogger doesn’t necessarily make it look blameless, either. It has been racking up about one complaint every three days for the last three years, but that’s mitigated by the fact that it’s spread across the 15,000 units it manages.
The question remains as to why a company would further risk its reputation by expanding a blogger’s limited scope and reach by making his claims public by filing a lawsuit. Paul Levy of Public Citizen offers this theory.
The personal nature of the criticism probably contributed to the lawsuit, said Paul Levy, an attorney at Public Citizen…
“It tends to be small to midsize companies” that sue for defamation, he said. “It tends not to be the General Motors of the world. It tends to be a company where there is an individual who built the company, and he doesn’t like it when the online world criticizes it.”
This seems to be true in a majority of company vs. critic lawsuits. The plaintiff is usually someone big enough to draw dedicated detractors but not confident enough to shrug off the attacks. This doesn’t mean entities should just ignore vocal critics, but they should take into consideration that addressing the critic (rather than the criticisms) tends to play out very badly in the court of public opinion. Even if the legal system agrees with its claims, that will ultimately have little effect on the group that really matters — potential customers.