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Court rules "Dirtiest Hotels" list not defamatory

By Marc J. Randazza

The U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville recently granted a motion to dismiss after it determined that a plaintiff hotel failed to successfully state a claim of defamation against defendant hotel review site TripAdvisor.

In Kenneth M. Seaton, d/b/a Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Ctr. v. TripAdvisor, LLC, the Grand Resort sued after it was ranked No. 1 of 10 on TripAdvisor’s “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list. According to the Order, one user claimed that the hotel’s bathtub had “dirt at least ½ inch thick” and was filled with dark hair.  The photograph that accompanied the listing was a photograph of a ripped bedspread.  The complaint levied that TripAdvisor was liable for “maliciously and wrongfully contriving, designing and intending to cause respected customers to lose confidence in the Plaintiff and to cause the public to cease and refrain from doing business with the Plaintiff and to cause great injury and irreparable damage to and to destroy Plaintiffs business and reputation by false and misleading means.” It also claimed that TripAdvisor “singled out” the hotel and defamed it with “unsubstantiated rumors and grossly distorted ratings.”  The plaintiff asked for $5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

The hotel furthered argued that TripAdvisor should be liable because the list was presented as “factual, verifiable information,” rather than opinion or hyperbole, stating that a ruling in favor of TripAdvisor would make it “more dangerous than ever in a ‘lawless no-man’s land’ on the Internet.”

The Court disagreed with the hotel, contending that a reasonable person would be able to tell the difference between an opinion and factual information, and that the list was an “unverifiable rhetorical hyperbole.”  As an example, the Court stated that any person who could not distinguish between the subjective opinion “it is hot” and the objective fact “it is one-hundred degrees” is not a reasonable person.  Much in the same way, TripAdvisor’s list is hyperbole.

TripAdvisor’s list is no different than other lists that surround us, the Court said—from law schools, restaurants, judges and hospitals.  Readers may or may not consider those rankings in making a decision, but a reasonable person would see the rankings as online users’ opinions, and the ranking itself is subjective and therefore not defamatory.

Read the full order here.

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