As might be expected given my line of work, I am wary bordering on dismissive of libel complaints lodged by doctors, lawyers, restaurant owners and others over even the most scalding of online reviews hosted by the likes of Yelp. After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how nasty or ill-informed.
However, what we have here from one Andreas Papaliolios of San Francisco is a possible exception to the rule. And that's not just my opinion, but also the ruling of a three-member panel of the California Court of Appeal's First Appellate District.
Papaliolios, who lived at 1360 Jones Street in San Francisco, had a long-standing beef with his landlord and held nothing back when expressing his displeasure online, going so far as to repeatedly repost rants that had been deemed inappropriate and removed by Yelp. His landlord sued for libel and two courts have now refused requests by Papaliolios to have the libel action dismissed on the grounds that his writings were nothing but constitutionally protected assertions of opinion.
"While many Internet critiques are nothing more than ranting opinions that cannot be taken seriously, Internet commentary does not ipso facto get a free pass under defamation law," wrote one justice.
You be the judge. From a story by Courthouse News Service:
Calling himself Sal R., Papaliolios wrote that the Jones Street building was owned by a "sociopathic narcissist - who celebrates making the lives of tenants hell."
While I am not a lawyer, it is my journalistic judgment that Papaliolios could get away with calling his landlord Satan's doorman and even narcissistic, given that the latter is commonly used and understood to mean extremely self-centered. Sociopathic may be another matter, though, given that the word is most often associated with criminality. I'd at least want to see a rap sheet before calling someone a sociopath.
Either way, Papaliolios was merely warming to the task.
"Of the 16 mostly-long-term tenants who lived in the building when the new owners (read: landlord) moved in, the new owners' noise, intrusions and other abhorrent behaviors likely contributed to the death of three tenants (Pat, Mary & John) ... " one review stated.
When I read that passage I yelped. You shouldn't need a law degree to know that it's not OK to accuse someone of being responsible for the deaths of three individuals. You can report that the authorities have made such an accusation, if that's the case, but to do so yourself in the absence of extraordinarily compelling evidence - say a videotape - is to all but invite a libel lawsuit.
And it would appear unlikely that Papaliolios has such compelling evidence. After all, according to the Courthouse News story, the death certificate for tenant "Pat" indicates that he succumbed to cancer and pneumonia, neither of which seems likely to have been caused by a noisy, intrusive landlord.
But the real problem for the libel defendant here may be in proving his landlord's actions played any role in the deaths of "Mary" and/or "John."
They're not dead.
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