Denver, CO -- A Jefferson County couple never thought a Yelp review would get them slapped with a lawsuit. A year later, Matt White's Yelp review cost him $65,000 in legal fees. That's about twice what he says he had to spend to get his new wood floors fixed by two companies.
His review of Footprints Floors, posted in 2013, led to a defamation lawsuit that White and his fiancée, Amanda Jameer, called a blatant attack on free speech.
"I feel like we're being bullied. It's still unbelievable to me even though we've been going through this for a year," Jameer said.
Among the highlights of White's review: "Absolutely horrible experience. … I have 4,000 square feet of sandpaper on the floor and Footprints believes there is nothing wrong. I have shoe prints in the stain, dust, debris and filler trapped under my stain. … The quality of the work is absolutely deplorable."
White claimed Footprints Floors left him with a staircase that didn't meet code, colors that didn't match and doors that wouldn't open because the floors hadn't been leveled properly, FOX31 reports.
"Some of the other reviews were much more scathing than my review," said White, who points out he was hardly the first person to post a negative review of the Centennial-based company.
In its lawsuit, Footprints Floors estimated White's Yelp review cost the company 167 projects and $625,000 in revenue between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1, 2014.
White and his fiancée never disputed Footprints Floors was owed money for its labor and materials but insisted adding the Yelp review to a contract dispute lawsuit turned the entire case on its head.
"Extortion by way of the court system to try and get money out of somebody and punish somebody for having spoken the truth," White said.
Colorado State Sen. Tim Neville, a Republican from Jefferson County, worries such lawsuits are a way to censor critics. He says next year he might introduce legislation that would make Colorado the 29th state to implement "Anti-SLAPP" legislation to protect consumers who post critical reviews.
"Opinions are opinions and sometimes we don't like someone else's opinion but the great thing about our country is that we have the right to exercise that opinion. That's free speech," Neville said.
Last week, Reps. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, and Anna Eschoo, D-Calif., introduced a bill aimed at supporting the rights of all Americans affected by SLAPP suits.
In a statement concerning White's case, Yelp told FOX31, "Businesses that choose to sue their customers to silence them rather than address their comments, often bring additional unwanted attention to the original criticism. We frequently find that a better course of action, rather than suing your customers, is publicly responding to a critical review in the same forum."
White settled his case for $15,000, saying it was cheaper than going to trial, but he refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would've prevented him from discussing the case.
The president of Footprints Floors, Bryan Park, declined an on-camera interview request. Instead he asked to respond to questions by email but ignored the questions and released the following statement:
"I started Footprints Floors in December of 2008, after working for another hardwood flooring company and deciding to go out on my own. I grew up in the Denver suburbs, and I wanted to start my own business in the community I love and that has given me so much.
Footprints Floors is a unique, family-run company. We help people with their residential remodel projects, installing raw hardwood floors that we then custom finish. But our work goes well beyond floor installation. We take care of any issue or challenge that comes up during a project – because we want to make sure our clients have a great experience with us and are 100 percent satisfied with our work. We tell our clients, "We want you to be happy with your floor for as long as you have it."
I'm proud of how this philosophy has allowed us to grow our business. We now have 120 employees and contractors, and we complete, on average, 1,500 wood-floor projects a year. Our projects span the Front Range from Pueblo to Loveland. We're one of four Colorado installation companies certified with the National Wood Flooring Association, and we carry an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. I never imagined this outcome when I started the company six and a half years ago, walking door-to-door to hand out fliers and working 16-hour days to complete our projects. I am humbled by our success.
We recently had an experience that I hope to never go through again. One of our customers expressed dissatisfaction with our work. We offered to fix all of the problems. I personally did everything I could to meet his needs. He still wasn't satisfied and made online comments that, in our view, were not true. After a drawn-out legal process, the case was settled last month when this client ultimately paid us for the floor we installed. This attack hurt our business's bottom line, yes, but more importantly, it hurt our reputation. We take our reputation, both on and offline, very seriously because we know it is what has allowed us to succeed. This was one project – that we wanted to make right – in the thousands of projects we've completed. We have thousands of happy clients, and we strive to keep them happy for however long they have our floors. This particular client's online comments were not representative of our work.
I know my company can move beyond this experience to continue to grow and serve our community. Footprints Floors will always do everything we can to meet our clients' needs and provide top-quality work."