“Any publicity is good publicity,” or so the saying goes. Not so for Dog Tranquility, an obedience school in Burke which is suing a customer in Springfield for negative Yelp and Angie’s List reviews.

Jennifer Ujimori brought her dog Yuki, a Bolognese, to Dog Tranquility in the hopes that her dog would become a therapy dog for the sick and elderly. Dog Tranquility specializes in training dogs to assist veterans with PTSD, which is a great need in our society and the owner, Colleen Dermott, should be commended for it. What she shouldn’t be commended for, however, is how she reacted to Jennifer’s negative reviews.

Jennifer was displeased with the class and wasn’t offered a refund, so she took the route many consumers do when you have no other recourse: tell the internet. She voiced her grievances on Yelp and Angie’s List, and Colleen’s small business started to suffer (See her Yelp page here)

This is Colleen’s crucial crossroads. Reach out and make it right, turning a negative into a positive, or “go nuclear” and hope for the best. Unfortunately, Colleen chose the latter, and slapped Jennifer with a $65,000 defamation lawsuit. It has already backfired massively, with Colleen’s Yelp and Angie’s List pages being flooded with 1 star reviews for her alleged attack on free speech.

Jennifer summarized it pretty well in an interview with the Washington Post: “For me, it’s a matter of principle and public interest... People should be free to express their feelings about their service providers. Companies using the legal system to silence their critics has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.” (Read the full Post article here)

Here at BenGlassLaw we absolutely agree. Customers should be free to voice their opinions without being sued. It’s an essential component of a civilized, functioning economy. Business owners should use bad reviews as an opportunity to respond thoughtfully and mend relationships. Publicly, if possible.

By way of example, a few years back I was shopping for a used car for one of my kids. I was looking at a place that had a LOT of reviews. Most good businessman know that it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time, so once you get to a certain size it’s expected to have some bad reviews peppered in with the good. The owner of this used car dealership had taken it upon himself to personally respond to each negative review with an apology, some explanation of the context, and an offer to make it right. They ended up getting my business out of it. Think about that - they got my business from their negative reviews! 

Colleen had a chance to do the same with Jennifer but she missed her opportunity. Now the whole community’s got their feathers ruffled about it, and it’s not the first time. Alexandria’s Hadeed Carpet Cleaners is trying to get Yelp to disclose the identities of anonymous reviewers, and in 2012 a contractor sued a Fairfax woman for $750,000 for a scathing one-star review. (The Post covered those as well)

This saddens me, because each of these instances were a chance for the entrepreneur to reach out, make a relationship, and make things right instead of attacking the consumer’s ability to speak freely. It’s a shame that Colleen didn’t foresee the consequences of her legal action, because training dogs to help returning servicemen is incredibly honorable and something our society needs right now. 

You can’t bite the hand that feeds and expect good things to happen. Even her dogs know that.

Ben Glass
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Ben Glass is a nationally recognized Virginia injury, medical malpractice, and long-term disability attorney
I studied business at a community college and operate an online business. There are companies who manage social media and work to repair negative reviews for a business. Recently I had a business try to buy my silence for a bad experience with their company. Its offensive for any business to abuse their position power with the power of money to manipulate facts to their own benefit. I learned in college the nature of business is not always legal or ethical as long as there is profit on the books.. Insurance companies are also a profit driven business, its no wonder there are so many complaints involving claims.
by Phillip Miller April 7, 2015 at 03:19 PM
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