Thomas Lloyd wrote bad a review on Yelp, complaining about how DeLand Animal Hospital treated his sick standard poodle, Rembrandt.

The DeLand retiree had to have Rembrandt euthanized by another vet, and now he's being sued for defamation by the veterinarian over his Yelp review. So, along with the pain of losing his poodle, he's also out about $12,000 in legal fees so far.

“They are just pursuing this thing to beat me up financially,” said Lloyd, who also posted a bad review on Google. “I’m not going to cave in. I’ll fight tooth and nail. Rembrandt deserves it and my family deserves it."

Veterinarian Dr. Thomas MacPhail, though, said he didn’t sue Lloyd simply over a getting panned on Yelp, a website which allows consumers to post reviews about restaurants, doctors, bars, hotels and many other things a person exchanges bucks for services and products. MacPhail said in a phone interview he sued Lloyd over what the veterinarian said was "a smear campaign" targeting him and his veterinary hospital with false accusations.

“You have the right to state an opinion,” MacPhail said in a phone interview. “That’s a First Amendment right, but what you don’t have the right to do is defame somebody, put up false statements that you don’t have any way of backing up.”

More comments, more lawsuits

The number of defamation lawsuits over online reviews have grown as people take to the web to post about a variety of places and services. A California law firm sued a client over a bad review. And a New York woman was sued this year by a gynecologist after posting poor reviews on Yelp, ZocDog and Healthgrades, saying that the doctor ran a “Very poor and crooked business practice,” according to news accounts.

“It’s becoming more and more common as more people use Yelp and more businesses are getting reviewed,” Catherine Cameron, a law professor at Stetson University College of Law, said in a phone interview.

She said reviewers have to make sure what they post can be proven true and have proof to back it up, such as receipts.

“If somebody is really mad and they have a true statement, they can post it on a million places and ruin a business,” Cameron said. “But as long as it’s true, they have a defense for a defamation lawsuit. In the end you are going to win, if it’s a true statement.”

A clear opinion is also a defense.

“If it’s pure opinion and it’s very clear to the reader that it’s pure opinion that can sometimes get you out of a defamation lawsuit,” Cameron said.

Sometimes, the aim of a lawsuit is just shutting someone up, said Evan Mascagni, the policy director for the Public Participation Project, an organization which is working to pass federal legislation against such lawsuits.

“As we’ve seen a rise in user-generated content websites, we’ve also seen a rise in bullies who essentially use the legal system to try to silence their critics and get bad reviews taken down,” Mascagni said.

Some states have legislation designed to protect people from such lawsuits, known as SLAPP, strategic lawsuit against public participation, which seek to tie up critics in legal fees and courthouse maneuvers.

“The filer isn’t necessary out to win the lawsuit rather they are out to drown the defendant in legal fees and drag them through the legal system,” he said.

Florida has "adequate" protection against SLAPP, receiving a C grade from the Public Particpation Project, according to the group's website. The law allows a person sued to ask a judge to dismiss SLAPP lawsuits early in the process and seek damages and attorneys' fees.

“Stick to honest opinion and if you are going to make a factual assertion make sure you are able to support that with credible evidence,” Mascagni said.

And while a person upset at a review can sue the writer, they will likely have little success, if any, suing Yelp or some other website. A recent California case highlights that.

A divided California Supreme Court ruled this summer that Yelp could not be forced to remove a review after an attorney won a defamation lawsuit against a former client.

Cameron, the Stetson law professor, said that’s because of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to websites if they are not the original authors of defamatory material.

Yelp's deputy general counsel, Aaron Schur, applauded the California Supreme Court's decision in a blog post in July, saying it protects Yelp's First Amendment right as a publisher and keeps the internet as a valuable place for ideas and opinions. Schur wrote that Yelp prohibits the posting of defamatory statements and examines court orders to make sure that defamation has occurred before the company removes reviewer's content.

And on Yelp's support center the company lists a question that says, "Can I sue Yelp for a bad review?" The answer, in brief, is that "any good lawyer" will tell you that Yelp isn't responsible for the opinion of the business' customers and that suing Yelp will only draw more attention to the bad review. 

So whether Lloyd's review of the DeLand Animal Clinic is defamatory or not, it's up to him to remove it. Yelp can't be forced to. 

ReadTom L.'sreview ofDeland Animal Hospital onYelp

"We would love to have him take it down. I think that would end it all, if he did that," said MacPhail’s attorney, Martin A. Pedata.

Pedata said he has no beef with the First Amendment’s free speech protections, but it doesn't give someone a right to defame another.

“I’m a supporter of the First Amendment,” Pedata said in a phone interview. “I think you have the right to post on Yelp or anything else as long as you tell the truth.”

Rembrandt falls ill

The dispute began with a man trying to find some help for his dog. Lloyd noticed on March 31 that Rembrandt was sick and took the pet to the DeLand Animal Hospital, where he was told Rembrandt was seriously ill and would need immediate treatment, including surgery to remove the dog's spleen, according to Lloyd's counter lawsuit.

Lloyd paid $1,800 with a credit card for the treatment and left the dog at the hospital.

Nearly six hours later at about 9 p.m., he got a call from DeLand Animal Hospital telling him that no procedures had been performed on the dog because no surgeon was available, according to the counter lawsuit.

Lloyd took his pet to another veterinary clinic in Daytona Beach but it was too late to save Rembrandt’s life and the dog was euthanized, according to the lawsuit.

DeLand Animal Hospital refunded him his $1,800.

Lloyd wrote the review and MacPhail filed his lawsuit.

In the review, Lloyd wrote, “What made Rembrandt’s death even more heartbreaking is the DeLand Animal Hospital was able to reach a surgeon that afternoon (one of the owners McPahail), (sic) but apparently he decided it would be easier to return my payment then to come into perform the surgery,” according to the lawsuit MacPhail filed against Lloyd.

Lloyd goes on to write “for a veterinarian to be so callous that he would allow Rembrandt to suffer over 6 hours is unforgivable,” according to the lawsuit.

“They lied to us,” Lloyd wrote, according to the lawsuit.

The review that is currently up on Yelp does not read exactly the same as in the lawsuit. Lloyd said he revised the review as he learned new information.

MacPhail said in a phone interview that Lloyd did not give people all the facts.

“He’s leaving out a tremendous amount of fact," MacPhail said, "by omission.”

The veterinarian said Rembrandt was in too bad a shape for surgery.

“To go under surgery you have to be stable,” MacPhail said in a phone interview. “The blood values were so low, he was not at a point where he could ever undergo surgery, and the blood transfusion did not help and that’s when he was called and told the dog cannot have surgery. He would mostly likely die short of a miracle."

MacPhail said Lloyd’s review has led to threats against him and he fears for his safety and that of his family. He said he was putting up Christmas decorations at his house recently when someone drove by and shouted something at him.

Lloyd said he does not condone threats against the veterinarian or his family.

Lloyd, who is 73 and worked locating underground utilities before retiring, said in the 10 years he and his wife had Rembrandt they never left the animal alone for more than four hours.

He said he posted his review on Yelp and Google and someone else posted it on the social media website Reddit.

Some people have replied to Lloyd's reviews with sympathy, according exhibits in the lawsuit. One person, who identified herself as Judy Young, replied "Sounds like a place I would not take my animals!"

On Yelp, Lloyd's review was marked "useful" by 18 readers, "funny" by one and "cool" by another.

And those reviews provide helpful information for consumers, Lloyd said, since he said some businesses only post positive reviews on their own sites. He pointed out that the DeLand Animal Hospital's website only had positive reviews.

He said consumers should post reviews but beware.

“If they are treated horribly,” Lloyd said, “they probably should tell people, but there’s a risk I’m finding out.”

Lloyd has updated his reviews on Yelp and Google adding that he was being sued by DeLand Animal Hospital, writing in Yelp that, "A person can give an accurate account of their experience and still be sued for frivolous reasons."

“It’s a true review,” Lloyd said. “I won’t take it down.”