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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sixth Circuit Upholds Lower Court Dismissal of Defamation Suit Against TripAdvisor Over "Dirtiest Hotels List"

Via Digital Media Law Project, the news that the Sixth Circuit has affirmed the lower court dismissal of claims in Seaton v. TripAdvisor LLC (see lower court ruling here).  Kenneth Seaton, the owner of a hotel ranked on TripAdvisor's 2011 "Dirtiest Hotels List," filed a lawsuit alleging defamation and false light invasion of privacy, and ultimately trade libel/injurious falsehood and tortious interference with business relationships.  Trip Advisor raised a First Amendment defense. The lower court denied the plaintiff's request to amend further and dismissed the action. Mr. Seaton appealed.

The Sixth Circuit examined the claims, noting that while whether readers understand a particular statement to be defamatory is a jury question, whether that statement could be so understood is a question for the court. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the statement complained of here could not be so understood under existing law, citing Milkovich and that line of cases.

 

Seaton failed to state a plausible claim for defamation because TripAdvisor's "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" list cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating, as an assertion of fact, that Grand Resort is the dirtiest hotel in America. We reach this conclusion for two reasons. First, TripAdvisor's use of "dirtiest" amounts to rhetorical hyperbole. Second, the general tenor of the "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" list undermines any impression that TripAdvisor was seriously maintaining that Grand Resort is, in fact, the dirtiest hotel in  America. For these reasons, TripAdvisor's placement of Grand Resort on the "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" list constitutes nonactionable opinion.

The use of the word "dirtiest" "negate[s] the impression that" TripAdvisor is communicating assertions of fact. ..."Dirtiest" is a loose, hyperbolic term because it is the superlative of an adjective that conveys an inherently subjective concept. Here, no reader of TripAdvisor's list would understand Grand Resort to be, objectively, the dirtiest hotel in all the Americas, the North American continent, or even the United States. Instead, "even the most careless reader must have perceived" that "dirtiest" is simply an exaggeration and that Grand Resort is not, literally, the dirtiest hotel in the United States. ... Thus, it is clear to us, as it would be to any reader, that TripAdvisor is not stating that Grand Resort is the dirtiest hotel in America as an actual assertion of fact....

The general tenor of the "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" list buttresses the conclusion that readers would understand that by placing Grand Resort on the list, TripAdvisor is not stating an actual fact about Grand Resort. On the webpage in which the list appears, TripAdvisor states clearly "Dirtiest Hotels - United States as reported by travelers on TripAdvisor." The implication from this statement is equally clear: TripAdvisor's rankings are based on the subjective views of its users, not on objectively verifiable facts. With this, readers would discern that TripAdvisor did not conduct a scientific study to determine which ten hotels were objectively the dirtiest in America. Readers would, instead, understand the list to be communicating subjective opinions of travelers who use TripAdvisor. ...No one reading the list would understand these two examples to be the determinative factors in what constitutes the dirtiest hotel in America. Readers would, instead, reasonably interpret these as entertaining examples of the specific experiences of two of TripAdvisor's users. Thus, the immediate context of Grand Resort's placement on the "2011 Dirtiest Hotels" supports the conclusion that the list cannot reasonably be understood as communicating that Grand Resort is, in fact, the dirtiest hotel in America.

 

Similary, since false light invasion of privacy is a personal right, and since Mr. Seaton did not claim that Trip Advisor named him personally, he could not maintain his cause of action. Trade libel, said the Court, requires the publication of a false statement of fact. TripAdvisor column contained protected statements of opinion. Finally, with regard to Mr. Seaton's claim of TripAdvisor's tortious interference with his business relationships, Mr. Seaton would have had to demonstrate that TripAdvisor knew of those relationships and intentionally attempted to cause "breach or termination" of the business relationship. Since Mr. Seaton could not demonstrate those elements of the tort, the district court properly dismissed his suit.

A well-reasoned opinion by Karen Nelson Moore, a jurist on my Top Ten Best Federal Judges List.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/media_law_prof_blog/2013/09/sixth-circuit-upholds-lower-court-dismissal-of-defamation-suit-against-tripadvisor-over-dirtiest-hot.html

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