(CBS News) — Posting reviews has become second nature for many consumers nowadays – 82 percent of adults say they read online reviews at least some of the time, according to a Pew Research Center Study – so when they have a bad experience with a business, up goes a review, to share it with others.
But for one man in Florida, what he thought was a simple review turned into a year-long battle in court.
“I never thought I’d be sued over anything that I write. There’s no reason to say anything but the truth,” said Tom Lloyd, of DeLand, Florida. But Lloyd said telling the truth got him in trouble.
His ordeal began when his 10-year-old poodle Rembrandt suddenly fell ill last year. Lloyd rushed him to nearby DeLand Animal Hospital, where he says he was told the dog needed immediate surgery for what was probably a ruptured spleen.
“I said, ‘You’re going to do this right now?’ And he said, ‘Yeah,'” Lloyd recalled.
But six hours later, he says, the clinic told him to come pick Rembrandt up: that they’d been unable to find a surgeon. He took the dog to a second clinic but says he was told it was too late – Rembrandt would need to be euthanized.
“It isn’t like there’s a closure,” Lloyd said. “He deserved a chance and they didn’t give him a chance. If he would have died on the operating table, I would have understood.”
Afterwards, he posted a review on Yelp, writing “The staff had wasted six hours of Rembrandt’s life and destroyed whatever chance he may have had to live. Our Rembrandt deserved a better last day.”
Weeks later, DeLand Animal Hospital and veterinarian Thomas MacPhail sued Lloyd for defamation, alleging his statements were “false” and “published maliciously and recklessly.”
Lloyd said, “I’m finding out that isn’t always cheap to give an honest review, because if the other person has money, they can drive you in the ground.”
When “CBS This Morning” spoke with him in May, Lloyd owed $26,000 in legal bills, more than his $20,000 yearly Social Security income.
And he’s not the only person who’s been sued. Last year, a New York woman was sued by her doctor for $1 million for posting negative online reviews. A man in Kansas was sued over a three-star Trip Advisor review of a theme park, and a South Carolina woman was sued by a restaurant she claimed refused to honor a coupon.
“We’re seeing a rise in individuals being sued for speaking out online,” said Evan Mascagni, who works for the Public Participation Project. He says many lawsuits are designed simply to intimidate. They’re called “SLAPP” lawsuits (for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
“A SLAPP filer doesn’t go to court to seek justice; they are just trying to silence or harass or intimidate a critic of theirs,” Mascagni said.
Some states have laws against SLAPP lawsuits, but there is no federal anti-SLAPP statute.
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission began cracking down on businesses that put gag clauses in their consumer contracts in violation of the Consumer Review Fairness Act.
“CBS This Morning” consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner asked Carl Settlemyer, of the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices, “Why is it important enough that the government feels like, ‘Hey we have to step in sometimes’?”
“The online review medium has really exploded over the past decade or so, and people’s reliance on the ability to learn from online reviews has really grown in proportion to that,” Settlemyer said. “People have stories to tell, and they’re not able to get them out because they feel like they’re going to be threatened.”
Thomas Lloyd stuck to his guns, and countersued: Earlier this year, two former veterinarians from DeLand gave sworn affidavits saying even though they lacked experience doing the emergency surgery Lloyd’s dog needed, veterinarian MacPhail had declined to do the surgery and instead left for vacation.
After the animal hospital’s attorneys learned of our interview with Lloyd, the case was quickly settled.
Lloyd told Werner, “They shouldn’t be able to try to financially break somebody just because they don’t like what you say.”
DeLand Animal Hospital, which is now under new ownership, did not respond to CBS News’ request for comment. Neither did veterinarian Thomas MacPhail, who DeLand told us last week is no longer working at the animal hospital.