When Thomas Lloyd of DeLand, Florida, posted a negative online review of a local animal hospital last year, he believed he was forewarning pet parents. What he wound up receiving was a heavy financial insult to his searing emotional injury.
“I never though I’d be sued over anything I write,” Lloyd told CBS News. “There’s no reason to say anything but the truth.” That “truth,” however, cost him a year-long court battle and more than $26,000.
Lloyd’s troubles began last year when he rushed his sickly, 10-year-old poodle, Rembrandt, to DeLand Animal Hospital. Lloyd was told Rembrandt needed emergency surgery to remove a ruptured spleen — and, he was assured the surgery would be performed immediately. Six hours later, Lloyd was informed that no surgeons were available to perform the procedure. A distraught Lloyd rushed Rembrandt to another clinic. By then, Rembrandt’s time had run out; he had to be euthanized.
On April 14, 2018, Lloyd posted on Yelp: “The staff [at DeLand] 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 slapped Lloyd with a defamation suit claiming his statements were “false” and “published maliciously and recklessly.” Lloyd’s legal fees exceeded his yearly Social Security income.
“It isn’t always cheap to give an honest review,” Lloyd said. “Because if the other person has money, they can drive you into the ground.”
Recent years have seen a rise in lawsuits intended to dissuade consumers from leaving negative reviews, according to Evan Mascagni, policy director for the Public Participation Project. A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (S.L.A.P.P.) filer “doesn’t go to court to seek justice,” Mascagni said. “They’re just trying to silence or harass or intimidate a critic of theirs.”
Currently, 29 U.S. states have anti-S.L.A.P.P. legislation on the books, but there is no federal anti-S.L.A.P.P. statute. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission ramped up enforcement of the Consumer Review Fairness Act which prohibits businesses from inserting gag clauses into consumer contracts. Online mediums afford consumers the chance to survey the performance of any business offering products and/or services. A Pew Research Center study estimates that fully 82% of consumers consult online reviews “at least sometimes” before making decisions.
While there are no foolproof guidelines to insulate one from a defamation suit, one’s online conduct may minimize the chances. Avoid sweeping judgements. Confine the scope of the review to your own experience. Be specific. The tone and content of an individual review reveals the difference between someone with a story to tell and an ax to grind.
Thomas Lloyd ultimately counter-sued DeLand Veterinary Hospital. Two former veterinarians gave sworn affidavits that they lacked the experience to perform Rembrandt’s surgery. That left Dr. MacPhail who reportedly declined to do the surgery and promptly left for vacation. Attorneys for DeLand Animal Hospital dropped their suit upon learning of CBS News’ interview with Lloyd.
When writing of our experience with pet service providers, let us post honest and specific content. We want to guide our fellow pet parents along the path of wise choices. And, by all means, avoid a “MacPhail.”