“To sue, or not to sue: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous online reviews,
Or to take suit against a sea of social media,
And by opposing end them?” – HeathG with apologies to Shakespeare
It seems that some business still don’t appreciate the perils of trying to silence critics with defamation suits. From McLibel, to the NYC Skank and Lindsay Lohan – businesses and celebrities are learning the hard way that suing your critics in to submission can be a very risky proposition.The latest example comes all the way from Kalamazoo, and it’s a classic example of what not to do in the the hyperconnected age of social media.
Our latest cautionary tale begins with university student Justin Kurtz who alleges he was the victim of some unscrupulous behaviour by T & J Towing. Kurtz claims:
“the company towed his car from the Arboretums apartments in Kalamazoo, where Kurtz is a resident. Kurtz claims that the battery was disconnected to disable the car alarm and the parking sticker was scraped off the windshield.” (Kalamazoo News 14/04/2010)
And so the Facebook group Kalamazoo Residents against T&J Towing was born, with Kurtz claiming he started it as a place for others to share their stories about T & J Towing. This didn’t go down well with T & J Towing.
Not content with seeking a ‘cease and desist’ and removal of the Facebook group, T & J decided to send a signal to other critics by also seeking $750k in damages. In hindsight, this may be the tipping point where Kurtz’s battle went from local kerfuffle to national and then international story.
‘Student sued for $750k’ is a great headline. Before long, the story was picked up by consumer advocacy site Consumerist. The story soon made its way to Digg, with reader ‘digs’ pushing the story to Digg’s front page. Thus, in the space of a few weeks, a dispute over a $118 towing fine had escalated in to a story reaching an audience of over 30 million.
But it gets worse for T & J Towing. Membership of the Facebook group has grown rapidly since the story made its way to Digg, from around three thousand members at the start of the day, to over six thousand at the time of writing this post. Kurtz is receiving moral (and offers of financial) support from around the world and his lawyer is using the site to identify other individuals who allege to have been treated the same as Kurtz. Countersuit anyone?
T & J Towing is suffering shocking brand damage because of it’s actions. Since the story went viral, internet users have been spreading negative sentiment across the net. Some of the top Google search result for T & J Towing are review sites that have been flooded with criticism, scorn and allegations that are far more defamatory than Kurtz’s original Facebook group.
Members of the Facebook group are also naming organisations that have stopped using T & J, and shaming those that still use them. It’s hard to imagine that T & J won’t lose more customers over this PR debacle. Even if they are successful in their suit, it’s likely to be a Phyrric victory for T & J. This should be a cautionary tale to all businesses – suing your crtics may have unintended, and very undesirable consequences.