Matthew Davis Gordon
Matthew Davis Gordon ()

Websites that allow users to review businesses are often dominated by what millennials like to call “haters.” But from a legal standpoint, can you just fire away with unjust criticism of Joe’s Garage or Uptown Pizza? West Hartford lawyer Matthew Dallas Gordon says no. “Words do have consequences,” said Gordon. “You think in today’s world you can say whatever you want, and that’s not true.”

Gordon has a legal victory under his belt to back him up. He represented the owner of an advertising business who sued for libel after being disparaged on ripoffreports.com and reviewstalk.com.

Plaintiff Peter Stavisky is CEO of Barrington Media Group, of Shelton, which buys radio ads on stations for clients. Last year, he was hired by John Colon Jr., owner of Prime Media Corp., who paid $10,000 for an advertising buy. After a week, Colon was unsatisfied with the response to the ads. So Stavisky gave him a $5,000 rebate.

Still unhappy, Colon allegedly left negative comments on the two websites, complaining about Stavisky’s service and fee and making other disparaging remarks about Stavisky’s business practices and personal life. The comments were easy enough to locate, wrote Derby Superior Court Judge Barbara Brazzel-Massaro. “The plaintiff was able to see the sites by simply going on Google with his name,” the judge wrote.

Stavisky’s suit claimed the comments were false and defamatory, led to a loss of business and caused embarrassment. Colon never entered an appearance in the case. But plaintiff Stavisky did testify, offering what the judge called “strong testimony denying the truth of the postings.”

Even though Colon’s statements were in the form of comments posted on a website, Brazzel-Massaro didn’t seem to factor the forum into her decision. She applied the same libel standards that judges apply to newspaper or magazine stories. In fact, several times she referred to Colon’s postings as “articles.”

“The plaintiff testifies that three clients had remarked about the articles,” Brazzel-Massaro wrote at one point. After citing several libel cases involving nondigital media, the judge found for the plaintiff and awarded $671.

Gordon’s client was less concerned about the monetary award than the lingering comments. Armed with the judge’s decision, Gordon said he went to Google and Microsoft and said, “Hey, these aren’t true.” Gordon said Microsoft took action within 48 hours to ensure that anyone searching for Stavisky’s business would not turn up the inflammatory comment. He’s still working with Google.