Companies Should Fight Temptation to SLAPP Disgruntled Customers

Lora Bentley

On Tuesday, I ranted about the woman who is suing Google for giving "unsafe directions" after she was hit by a car when walking down a street in Utah. A coworker described it as "the definition of frivolity," and I certainly agree. But it's not the only definition of frivolity. The New York Times reports that Congress is contemplating a law that would discourage businesses from filing another type of nuisance suit: a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP.


Typically, SLAPP suits are filed by businesses that have suffered due to customer complaints in online forums or on social networks. Even if the complaints are grounded in fact, the businesses claim defamation and request damages, but they don't really expect to prevail. What they really want is to discourage those who have been complaining about their services or products from continuing to do so.


As an example, New York Times writer Dan Frosch points to a case a towing company filed against a Michigan college student after he started a Facebook campaign against the company. He said the company had towed his car from his apartment complex parking lot en though he had a valid permit to park there. And he wasn't the only one with complaints, apparently, because the Facebook group he created quickly garnered 800 members.


Though many states have laws against SLAPP suits, there is no federal law preventing them. But if Reps. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Charlie Gonzales, D-Texas, have their way, that will change soon. They have proposed a federal statute "modeled primarily on California's SLAPP law," the story says. The bill would allow a defendant who believes he is being sued for speaking out online to move for the case to be dismissed. If the case is ultimately dismissed, the business that filed the suit will be required to pay the defendant's legal fees and court costs.


It's another cautionary tale that should play a part in every company's strategic planning and risk management policy creation. If you're going to file a suit like this one against someone who has made complaints online, make sure your suit is a legitimate one that would not be classified as a SLAPP. Otherwise, the bad publicity and additional cost will outweigh what the vocal disgruntled customer might have cost in the first place.

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