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News 5 Investigates: Businesses threatening lawsuits against people over statements made in online reviews

When does Freedom of Speech cross the line and become a case of defamation?
Online Reviews
Posted at 4:37 PM, Dec 05, 2021

COLORADO SPRINGS — The internet has made it easy for anyone to read and write reviews about companies on sites like Yelp, Google and Facebook.

The First Amendment protects Freedom of Speech, but that doesn't mean you cannot be sued for defamation and owe money if what you post can be proven false.

Liz Tibbetts
Liz Tibbetts talking with chief investigative reporter Eric Ross

Liz Tibbetts says she needed a company to redo some plumbing work and install a new HVAC system in her Colorado Springs house.

She came across Smith Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical while doing research on her computer.

"I found the company online," she said. "It had some decent reviews on it."

Liz says she received an estimate for just over $21,000 in work.

"They definitely made the repairs sound like they were dire," she explained.

Liz says the estimate seemed high, so she decided to get a second opinion.

A different company provided her with two different A/C and furnace estimates which came in at a fraction of the cost, according to documents Liz provided. Liz says she was upset about the large price difference between companies, so she decided to write a negative review on Facebook.

Online review Liz posted
Online review Liz posted on Facebook

In her posting, she said that Smith Plumbing and Heating "tried to charge $23,000 for $10,000 in work" and then said "they really tried to take advantage of this single parent."

Shortly after writing that review, Liz said she received a letter from attorney James Barber.

The letter is titled "Potential Lawsuit in Defamation Per Se". In it, Barber states that a portion of Liz' review is "defamatory" and he asked her to "remove the post" and pay $10,000 in damages to settle the claim in lieu of a lawsuit.

"I definitely felt like they were trying to take advantage of me," Liz told News 5. "It's honest negative feedback."

Getting sued by a business or company is not uncommon according to research News 5 Investigates conducted.

We found several cases of businesses going after customers over what they write in online reviews.

In Illinois, a window and blinds company sued a couple over a negative Yelp! review.

In northern Virginia, a child care provider sued a mother over negative feedback that was posted.

In Lubbock, TX, a business owner was sued by a third-party company he hired to help grow his business but when things didn't work out, the business owner left a negative review online and the company sued. In that case, the business owner was ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Liz says in her case, she's prepared to fight after receiving Barber's letter asking her to remove the post and pay for damages.

"My response was that they can put a lawsuit together and I'd be happy to defend myself to the judge," she said.

News 5 reached out to Smith Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electrical to hear its side of the story.

"This is a reputable company that takes care of customers, cares for its customers and the customers reciprocate by coming back," James Barber, General Legal Counsel and VP of Operations for Smith Plumbing and Heating said. "I've written unfavorable reviews for places I've eaten and for other businesses and I get that, but there are elements for a review to be lawful, it has to be true. It cannot be false and it cannot cause damage."

He says Liz' online review questioning the price discrepancy was not an apples to apples comparison---claiming both companies provided estimates for different equipment, work and warranties.

"What she wrote was patently untrue in terms of comparing estimates that are not comparable and then accusing a company of being basically predators and taking advantage monetarily of single mothers," Barber said.

To prove his point, he brought in a single mother with three kids who works for Smith Plumbing and Heating during our interview.

"The Smith company has really taken me in and they are very accompanying," employee Samantha Heron said. "They really tend to my schedule with three children."

Liz says she stands by her review and believes the letter she received threatening legal action is only meant to get her to pay $10,000.

"I don't feel that there is anything to quantify that with a dollar amount," Liz said. "I posted a negative review. Why do they think they can get money out of me for nothing?"

Barber feels differently about her posting.

"It's patently false and it damages the reputation of the company," he said.

As of Dec. 1, court records don't show any current lawsuit filed against Liz right now. That's not uncommon, according to Barber.

Barber says the first step in filing a case is to send out a notice and give a person time to respond accordingly before filing suit.