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A local Texas judge is tossing a $1 million lawsuit brought by a Dallas pet-sitting business that sued the owners of a pet fish for giving the company a 1-star Yelp review that complained that “Gordy” was overfed.
Among other allegations, Prestigious Pets claimed (PDF) that a Plano couple violated its non-disparagement clause and defamed it on Yelp in last year’s review.
The Dallas County suit alleged that Michelle and Robert Duchouquette’s review about the overfeeding of the tiny betta fish amounted to libel because overfeeding is akin to animal cruelty and a crime.
“I am thankful to have a ruling that supports our right to free speech. We should all have the opportunity to express our opinions without the fear of a lawsuit,” Michelle Duchouquette said in a statement.
Judge Jim Jordan also ruled (PDF) in a brief order that the couple’s lawyers, which included Public Citizen, are entitled to recover legal fees, in addition to sanctions “sufficient to deter them from bringing similar actions.”
Here is the text of the review that sparked the litigation.
The one star is for potentially harming my fish, otherwise it would have been two stars. We have a camera on the bowl and we watched the water go from clear to cloudy.
There was a layer of food on the bottom from way too much being put in it.
Even if you don’t have fish, you should be able to see the change in the bowl and stop putting in food.
Better yet, ask us how much to feed if you are unsure.
The legal fracas, said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen lawyer who litigated the case, has hurt the pet-sitting company’s reputation because local and national press had picked up on the story.
“Not only did the company lose business when customers were disgusted over the non-disparagement lawsuit, it now is responsible to pay attorney fees and sanctions.
This case should serve as a warning to other companies,” he said.
In arguing for the case to be dismissed, Levy wrote: (PDF) “There is no doubt that all of Plaintiffs’ claims relate to the Duchouquettes’ exercise of their rights to free speech.”
The couple said they discovered Prestigious Pets on Yelp.
The company’s Yelp page was full of five-star ratings.
The couple hired the service ahead of a five-day trip to Napa Valley in California last year.
The firm walked and fed the couple’s two dogs, too. On Yelp, Michelle also complained about the company’s billing practices.
The review, however, said that the “care of our dogs was fine.”
The company’s Yelp page also has a “Consumer Alert” noticing “Questionable Legal Threats.”
A Senate Committee approved the Consumer Review Freedom Act last year, but the full Senate did not vote on the measure that would have declared non-disparagement clauses unenforceable.
Prestigious Pets did not immediately respond for comment.