California Supreme Court votes to review a libel case over negative Yelp reviews

The California Supreme Court agreed to review Yelp’s objection to a decision ordering it to strip the Internet of comments posted about a San Francisco law firm. 

The law firm owner, Dawn Hassell, sued Ava Bird, the disgruntled former client who allegedly posted the reviews — and lower courts agreed that Yelp should be forced to remove them. 

After Hassell severed the relationship, someone posted critical one-star Yelp ratings against the firm, and Hassell concluded Bird had written them. The firm told Bird in an email that her comments were inaccurate and defamatory and asked her to remove them.

After she failed to delete the reviews, the firm sued her for defamation. The lawsuit was served at a house where Bird no longer lived, and when she did not respond, a default judgment was entered against her. 

An appeals court upheld the removal order, leading Yelp to seek the state Supreme Court’s help. The San Francisco company wasn’t a defendant in the case and didn’t have a chance to be heard at trial.

Other online powerhouses, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Pinterest, wrote to the court in support of Yelp saying upholding the lower court order could "silence a vast quantity of protected and important speech." Also backing the appeal were Internet law professors and 30 news organizations, including The Times. 

To the frustration of many plaintiffs’ attorneys, the Communications Decency Act has long freed online publishers from liability for user postings on their websites and apps. But many technology experts say the Hassell case may be the biggest threat yet to the immunity.

The appellate court found that no liability was being placed on Yelp, and thus the ruling didn’t go against federal law. Instead, as the “administrator of the forum” where defamatory speech existed, Yelp bears the responsibility of removal, the court said.

Experts in technology law say they’re optimistic that the California Supreme Court will spike the order against Yelp.

Hassell, who says the fears of the Internet companies are overblown, also won a judgement of more than $550,000 in damages and costs.

The California Supreme Court could take several months or longer to decide the case. The court's brief order Wednesday contained no comment on the litigation.

paresh.dave@latimes.com / PGP

Twitter: @peard33

Times staff writer Maura Dolan and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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