If you run a website that allows comments, then you’ll find the Supreme Court of California Opinion very interesting: Hassell v. Bird in case of DAWN L. HASSELL et al. vs AVA BIRD with YELP being the Objector and Appellant.
My read of the opinion was that Ava Bird talked with Attorney Dawn L. Hassell about a personal injury case. Bird then went to Hassell’s office to sign paperwork, but later, Hassell’s Mother fell ill and Hassell explained that she couldn’t handle the case, because of her obligation to her mother and also because of the insurance company.
Personally, I think when an attorney tells you sooner than later that she can’t handle the case, for whatever reason, you should be thankful and find another.
Allegedly, Bird, using username of “Birdzeye B.”, left a 1 star review on YELP that provided in full (with the spelling, spacing,capitalization, and punctuation in this and all other quoted reviews per the originals) as follows:
well, here is another business that doesn’t even deserve one star.
basically, dawn hassell made a bad situation much worse for me. she told me she could help with my personal injury case from falling through a floor, then reneged on the case because her mom had a broken leg, or something like that, and that the insurance company was too much for her to handle. and all of this after i met with her office (not her personally, she was nowhere to be found) signed paperwork to ‘hire’ them and gained confidence in her of office (due mostly to yelp reviews) so, in all fairness, i have to share my experience so others can be forewarned. she will probably not do anything for you, except make your situation worse. in fact, after signing all the paperwork with her office, like a broken record, they repeated ‘DO NOT TALK TO THE INSURANCE COMPANY’ over and over and over.
and over and over.
so I honored that and did not speak to them. but the hassell law group didn’t ever speak with the insurance company either, neglecting their said responsibilities and not living up to their own legal contract! nor did they bother to communicate with me, the client or the insurance company AT ALL.
then, she dropped the case because of her mother and seeming lack of work ethic. (a good attorney wont do this, in fact, they aren’t supposed to) to save your case, STEER CLEAR OF THIS LAW FIRM! and research around to find a law firm with a proven track record of success, a good work ethic, competence and long term client satisfaction. there are many in the bay area and with some diligent smart interviewing, you can find a competent attorney, but this wont be one of them.
Hassell wrote Bird that:
[y]ou are certainly free to write a review about your experience and provide constructive feedback. But slandering someone and intentionally trying to damage their business and reputation is illegal.
and warned Bird that if the negative review was not removed or revised, that:
[i]f you are unwilling to talk to me or respond, I will assume you don’t intend to work this out [with] me directly and I will retain a defamation attorney this week to file a legal action against you for slander and defamation.
Bird emailed back basically stating that Hassell would:
have to accept the permanent, honest review [I] have given you.
The lawsuit started, Hassell won, but YELP was dragged into it and told to remove the review – YELP argued against this… and eventually the case ended up before the Supreme Court.
YELP challenged the lower courts and won. This case helps a website owner understand their protection when allowing legitimate comments and reviews.
That didn’t remove Bird from the legal ramifications of her 1 star review, including general and special damages and costs totaling $557,918.85.
Supreme Court Justice CANTIL-SAKAUYE, C. J. (with CHIN, J. and CORRIGAN, J. agreeing), ruled that the plaintiffs’ interpretation (Hassell, etc.) “misses the forest for the trees” – (Justices LIU, J. and CUÉLLAR, J. offered dissenting opinions).
Section 230 allows these litigation burdens to be imposed upon the originators of online speech. But the unique position of Internet intermediaries convinced Congress to spare republishers of online content, in a situation such as the one here, from this sort of ongoing entanglement with the courts.
Yelp is entitled to immunity under the statute. Plaintiffs’ attempted end-run around section 230 fails.
Perhaps the dissenters’ greatest error is that they fail to fully grasp how plaintiffs’ maneuver, if accepted, could subvert a statutory scheme intended to promote online discourse and industry self-regulation. What plaintiffs did in attempting to deprive Yelp of immunity was creative, but it was not difficult. If plaintiffs’ approach were recognized as legitimate, in the future other plaintiffs could be expected to file lawsuits pressing a broad array of demands for injunctive relief against compliant or default-prone original sources of allegedly tortious online content. Injunctions entered incident to the entry of judgments in these cases then would be interposed against providers or users of interactive computer services who could not be sued directly, due to section 230 immunity. As evinced by the injunction sought in Kathleen R., supra, 87 Cal.App.4th 684, which demanded nothing less than control over what local library patrons could view on the Internet (id., at p. 691), the extension of injunctions to these otherwise immunized nonparties would be particularly conducive to stifling, skewing, or otherwise manipulating online discourse — and in ways that go far beyond the deletion of libelous material from the Internet. Congress did not intend this result, any more than it intended that Internet intermediaries be bankrupted by damages imposed through lawsuits attacking what are, at their core, only decisions regarding the publication of third party content.
Even as we conclude that Yelp is entitled to immunity, we echo Barrett, supra, 40 Cal.4th 33, in emphasizing that our reasoning and result do not connote 32 a lack of sympathy for those who may have been defamed on the Internet. (Barrett, at p. 63.) Nevertheless, on this record it is clear that plaintiffs’ legal remedies lie solely against Bird, and cannot extend — even through an injunction — to Yelp.
On this last point, we observe that plaintiffs still have powerful, if uninvoked, remedies available to them. Our decision today leaves plaintiffs’ judgment intact insofar as it imposes obligations on Bird. Even though neither plaintiffs nor Bird can force Yelp to remove the challenged reviews, the judgment requires Bird to undertake, at a minimum, reasonable efforts to secure the removal of her posts.
For the foregoing reasons, section 230 immunity applies here. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeal insofar as it affirmed the trial court’s denial of Yelp’s motion to set aside and vacate the judgment.
The nature of the injunction, as well as the relationship between Yelp and Bird, distinguishes this case from Ross v. Superior Court (1977) 19 Cal.3d 899 (Ross), on which the Court of Appeal relied.
Moral of the story… If you leave a review, stick to facts you can back up and don’t make assumptions. If you run a website that allows comments and reviews and you are challenged, refer to this case (Opinion #:S235968 filed July 2, 2018) and section 230 to help put your mind at ease.
Oh, and for those of you that think leaving multiple positive reviews of your “favorite” website doesn’t do any harm, it does. It gives your website an unfair advantage over your competitor and can get you in big trouble!