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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that TripAdvisor can't be held liable for defamation for crowning Tennessee's Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center as the Dirtiest Hotel in America. In the $10 million lawsuit, the owner of the unlucky winner claimed TripAdvisor used a flawed rating system based on unreliable rumors.
The court's decision reminds business owners and their lawyers alike that hyperbolic scathing reviews typically won't be considered defamatory.
As we legal folk know, Yelp-scorned businesses have met with mixed results in defamation cases stemming from damaging reviews. Typically, businesses can bring defamation lawsuits when the reviewer posts false information. You can sue for reviews that are based on untruths (e.g., "They steal their employees' tips"), not ones based on an opinion (e.g., "Their food smells like moth balls").
The TripAdvisor "Dirtiest Hotels in America" list, however, is a little more tricky. It doesn't take a great stretch of imagination to think TripAdvisor readers would rely on the list as entertaining truth-telling. But do opinion-based ratings that draw a conclusion count as false assertions of fact and be defamatory?
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't think so.
Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore had a analyzed the list literally and said the word "dirtiest" is rhetorical hyperbole and that no reader would think that Grand Resort is literally the dirtiest hotel in 'Merica.
The judges turned to BuzzFeed-esque lists like "Top Ten Dumb Asses" and a Reader's Digest poll proclaiming Tom Hanks as the most trusted person in America as evidence that such lists are opinion, not fact.
The court's logic isn't grounded in reality. While few people would think Grand Resort is literally the dirtiest hotel in America, topping a list like that (on a trusted travel website like TripAdvisor) does translate to: "This place is heinous. Never stay here. Ever."
Dramatic flair -- in this case, statements like "It's more sanitary to sleep in the bathroom" -- can be damaging to a business.
The main takeaway from the court's decision is that opinion, no matter how damning it can be to your business, is likely not going to pan out from a defamation angle. A customer has the right to pen an over-the-top glowing review ("The food is like angels copulating on your tongue.") or scathing review: ("I could have done without the blood-stained mattress.")
Grand Resort, the ratchet-crowned winner/loser, had to learn that the hard way.