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By: Matt Foree
One cannot browse the internet without encountering a website touting a “10 Best” or “10 Worst” list. These lists are particularly prevalent at the beginning of the year as websites about music, movies, travel, etc. categorize and repackage their findings from 2013. These lists drive business to those who find themselves at the top of the list and, presumably, cause readers to avoid those at the bottom of the list. Do you have any legal recourse if you find yourself at the top of a negative list? Maybe not.
A resort hotel in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center (“Grand Resort”), found itself at the top of an unfortunate list – TripAdvisor’s “Dirtiest Hotels” list. TripAdvisor is an on-line travel website that collects user-generated information regarding travel, including hotels, restaurants and attractions. TripAdvisor published Grand Resort’s number one position on the list, as reported by travelers on TripAdvisor, including a photograph of a ripped bedspread, a quotation about “dirt at least ½” thick in the bath tub,” and a thumbs-down image next to the statement “87% of reviewers do not recommend this hotel.”
Grand Resort’s sole proprietor (“Seaton”) filed suit, alleging, among other things, libel and tortious interference with prospective business relationships. Seaton alleged that TripAdvisor published the statements to cause the public to cease doing business with Grand Resort and to cause injury to its reputation by false and misleading means. Seaton sought $5 million in damages and another $5 million in punitive damages.
The district court dismissed the case, holding that Grand Resort did not state a plausible claim for defamation because TripAdvisor’s placement of Grand Resort on the list is not capable of being defamatory, because the list constitutes protected opinion. The court found that the list used loose, hyperbolic language and its tenor undermines any assertion by Seaton that it communicates anything more than the opinions of TripAdvisor’s users. The Sixth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, holding that the list “cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating, as an assertion of fact, that Grand Resort is the dirtiest hotel in America.”
In this case, the obvious hyperbole of the opinions made the Court’s decision easier. As this is a developing area of the law, the answer may not always be so clear. If you believe that you have been the subject of a defamatory statement on the internet, feel free to reach out to us.