All of us have been in the position of finding out that someone in our life was saying mean or rude things about us. Maybe it’s a nasty comment left online, maybe a snide word at an in-person event, or maybe it’s even a bad business review that you feel is unfair (or even untrue!). A lot of us, as individuals and businesspeople, are tempted to “come out swinging” and respond to the unfair commentary by engaging online or even looking at legal options to stop such conversations from moving forward.

So…can you sue someone for badmouthing you or your business? As you’ve probably heard before, a lawyer’s favorite answer is “it depends.” And the same is true here—you very well may be able to sue someone for badmouthing you—but only if certain elements are true in your circumstances. You can sue someone for slander (spoken) or libel (written) in Texas if you can prove the following:

  1. The person you’re suing made a false statement of fact about you to someone else (not just to you);
  2. This false statement caused you harm, either to your reputation or actual money damages; and
  3. The person you’re suing purposefully, recklessly, or negligently made the false statement (if you’re a public figure, you have to prove the false statement was made or written with “actual malice” (purposeful or reckless), while non-public figures only have to show that the person acted negligently when the false statement was made).

Some statements are so bad that the law assumes that, if they are false, they automatically defame someone. For example, falsely accusing someone of a crime would be what the law considers defamation “per se” (Latin for “by itself”) and the person who has been falsely accused might have the beginnings of a defamation case. Similarly, accusations or statements that specifically attack someone’s office or occupation (like as a lawyer, a plumber, an electrician, a contractor, a doctor, etc.) can fall within this “defamation per se” category.

But be careful! Just because someone says or writes something that you think is unfair or even untrue doesn’t necessarily mean that it is defamatory! Look back at the first element listed above. The statement must be a false statement of fact. That’s a fancy way of saying that it can’t just be someone’s opinion. Even if a client, friend, or stranger thinks mean and unfair things about you, your business, or your services/products—if it’s just their opinion, it’s not defamation.

Take, for example, a business review on Yelp or Google that says: “These people are awful! They charged me way too much and didn’t even do a good job. Don’t go there!” This is obviously a disheartening review to receive and very well may be unfair or even untrue. Maybe you don’t even know the person who left the review! The likelihood under Texas law, however, is that such a review is not defamation and likely you should do one of two practical things to try to overcome the negative review. First, you could get your current clients to leave you positive reviews and try to water down its effects. Or you can attempt to remove the review or respond to it, letting readers know your reaction and why the review is unfair. Most websites like BBB, Google, Yelp, etc. allow the business to respond to reviews, even if they won’t take them down.

If you need help navigating a defamation or other civil or business-related issues, reach out to the firm to schedule a consult. VPLF Law has represented businesses and individuals who want to pursue defamation claims and those who have been accused of defamation. We’ll be very happy to talk you through your options.

Watch for our next blog post in this series, which will deal with a special Texas law dealing with defamation of people and businesses called the Texas Citizens Participation Act.

Blog posts are for informational purposes only and, to the extent they provide opinions about law, cases, or public-interest matters, are the sole opinions of the writer, not the firm or its clients. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post (or other blog posts) for legal advice. Always consult your lawyer on whether and how particular cases, laws, or decisions affect your case.