A California dentist who filed a defamation case over negative reviews on Yelp.com must pay $80,000 in attorney fees to a young patient's parents, whom she sued, according to a court ruling issued May 12.
In January 2009, San Francisco Bay Area dentist Yvonne Wong, DDS, filed a lawsuit against Tai Jing and Jia Ma, the parents of a young patient who had been treated by Dr. Wong, after the father posted a negative review on Yelp.com.
Dr. Wong contended that the review defamed her by implying that she didn't inform the boy's parents about alternatives to the use of amalgam and nitrous oxide and didn't spot cavities that needed treatment. She also named Yelp in the suit.
The key issue in the case was whether the review stepped over the line from discussing a topic of public interest to defamation.
Dr. Wong subsequently won the first round of the legal wrangling when a judge ruled the case had sufficient legal merit to be tried. The case then went to an appellate court, which found that consumers can post reviews of businesses on websites such as Yelp.com because they contribute to public discussion about controversial issues such as the use of dental amalgam.
That ruling found that the Yelp review was protected under California's anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) law, which preserves the right to speak out on public issues.
Defamation claims against Yelp and the child's mother, Jia Ma, were dismissed. But the suit against the child's father Tai Jing is pending in Santa Clara Superior Court. Dr. Wong's attorney, Victoria Booke, notes that both the trial and appellate courts have ruled there is a likelihood that that the defamation claim against him will prevail.
Now Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Peter Kirwan ruled that Dr. Wong must pay attorney fees and costs incurred by the patient's parents and Yelp related to the lawsuit. Yelp and the parents said they had incurred legal bills of $113,620, but Kirwan reduced the fee award to $80,714.
"The legal motion used in this case to dismiss some, but not all of the parties, and to obtain attorney’s fees (The Anti-SLAPP Motion) theoretically was designed to protect individual rights," Booke told DrBicuspid.com. "However, it appears to actually harm individuals seeking to protect their businesses and business reputations from false and harmful statements. Further, in my opinion the award of attorney’s fees is an outrageous amount against a single person who is simply trying to protect her reputation and her small business from the severe damage caused by published and publicized falsehoods.
However, Paul Clifford, an attorney with the California anti-SLAPP project, observed: "I think it means businesses should consider whether they really want to sue their customers even if the information they post is negative. Oftentimes, if you sue the person who wrote it, it only brings more attention to it and it may cost you more money in the end."