An Illinois woman complained on the internet that her plastic surgery resulted in “facial lumps.” Now, two doctors who didn’t like her review are suing Google (NSDQ: GOOG), saying the search giant owes them $50 million for lost reputation.
In an anonymous complaint filed in Chicago federal court, Doctors “John and Jane Doe” say they suffered lost income and embarrassment after Google refused their requests to take down reviews they believe are false and defamatory. They complain the search giant failed to monitor its “so-called blogs” and “supposed ‘ratings’ of various businesses.”
Based on the complaint, it appears the doctors are referring to Google Places, a tool that allows users to find and rate local businesses. The tool lets users assign a star ranking and post comments and also includes links to other review sites like Urbanspoon or Citysearch.
The doctors also filed a sealed exhibit containing allegedly libelous statements in which patients accuse them of botching surgeries and of posting fake positive reviews of their work. In the complaint, which is not sealed, they provide a short description of the statements.
The doctors’ efforts to conceal their identities may be based on fear of drawing further attention to the negative reviews. This is what happened to a plastic surgeon in Marin County, California last year who sued a patient but then attracted media attention after a court threw out the lawsuit and accused the surgeon of attempting to stifle free speech.
In recent years, online reviews have been a source of empowerment for consumers but have also led to a series of lawsuits from businesses and professionals who complain they have no way to fight back against false claims. The most high profile case was from merchants who said review site Yelp engaged in extortion by prominently displaying negative reviews until a merchant agreed to buy advertising. The lawsuit was dismissed last month.
Google has been hit with similar lawsuits in the past. Just this week, California’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a complaint brought by a roofing company over defamatory comments posted on a Google-related site. As media law expert Eric Goldman noted, the plaintiffs had little hope of success because of a rule
in copyright law that protects websites from being liable for content posted by third parties. [CORRECTION: an earlier version wrongly stated the liability shield was based in copyright law rather than section 230 of the CDA. Apologies to Professor Goldman for the error]
Even though it is possible for the doctors to sue the reviewer directly, the prior court decisions suggest they will have a difficult time suing over sites that, in the words of the complaint, Google “distributes through an electronic medium available to the public known as the ‘Internet’.”
“This isn’t a close case. This lawsuit is unquestionably preempted by 47 USC 230, and I wonder if the court will sanction the attorney or the doctors for bringing such a clearly immunized claim,” wrote Goldman in an email to paidContent.
[UPDATE: Google said it had no comment on the lawsuit]. The company has a web page explaining how its review system works. The page says that Google may remove a review that is flagged for moderation but that “more often than not, we leave the review up.”
The lawsuit was initially filed in Cook County Circuit Court in September but was removed to federal court this week.