Websites such as Angie’s List and Yelp allow consumers to leave ratings and reviews for a company whose services they have employed and these sites are known to highly influence traffic and public opinion of a company. One user, Ted McCluskey of St. Louis, received quite a shock after leaving a negative review of a roofing company on Angie’s List when, a few days later, he received a letter from an attorney hired on behalf of the company. The letter stated that any further postings by McCluskey that directly referenced the roofing company, Signature Exteriors, would result in the filing of a lawsuit in which the company would seek maximum monetary damages from McCluskey as equitable relief.

Obviously to receive an official legal document referencing a potential lawsuit would make anyone nervous. McCluskey, however, insisted that he would not be quieted by the company’s legal scare tactics and he would defend his review in court if necessary.

Ultimately it is rare to find a suit over an online review posted by a consumer but there can be risks. With so many people posting reviews on sites such as Angie’s List it is important to know the rights of a consumer and avenues that a company may take in response to a published negative review.

It is impossible to say precisely how many letters have arrived in consumers mailboxes threatening legal action on behalf of a client that has been negatively reviewed. There have been seven such cases nationwide against reviewers on Yelp and Angie’s List made public over the past four years. Angie’s List spokeswoman Cheryl Reed says there have been a “random handful” and many more probably go unreported.

What consumers need to remember is that slander and libel are civil, not criminal. Meaning that you are not going to be thrown in jail for dissing a roofer; you do still have the right to freedom of speech. However, a business does have the right to sue you for damages in the form of money.

Generally the most important rule to remember is to tell the truth and document it any way that you can. If you hire a company to build a fence, and it blows down the next day, you can say so even though it makes the builder look bad. Calling the company a band of thieves however, is not a supportable action unless you they have all been convicted or you have footage of them literally stealing your possessions. You’re safe when simply expressing opinion, just be sure to not misstate a fact.