It's one thing to check in to an unkempt hotel room, finding hair and dirt on the sheets. It's another to be forced to clean the room yourself, because there's no staff around to answer complaints about the condition of the room, or to fix the broken air conditioner or shower in the bathroom. And it's quite another to be charged $350 for calling the overnight number trying to get something fixed, and then threatened with a libel lawsuit by the hotel's lawyer/owner after leaving a negative review online.
That's why the Indiana Attorney General's office stepped in and filed a lawsuit against the Abbey Inn in Nashville, Indiana, charging it with violating the state's Deceptive Consumer Sales Act.
Losing Legal Argument
The lawsuit points to a clause in the hotel's guest policy:
Guests agree that if guests find any problems with our accommodations and fail to provide us the opportunity to address those problems while the guest is with us, and/or refuses our exclusive remedy, but then disparages us in any public manner, we will then be entitled to charge their credit card an additional $350 damage. Should guest refuse to retract any such public statements legal action may be pursued.
The state claims that the policy "not only attempted to limit negative online reviews … but would also prohibit a consumer from filing a consumer complaint with the Attorney General or Better Business Bureau, filing a lawsuit, or even a police report, as all could be considered a 'disparagement' in a 'public manner.'" The lawsuit is asking for an injunction against the policy, as well as $5,000 per violation of the state's consumer protection laws.
Sounds Like a Winner
If you were wondering where such a ludicrous non-disparagement clause could come from, that would be Abbey Inn's former owner, attorney Andrew Szakaly. Szakaly was also reportedly the attorney for the town of Nashville and has since moved on from both positions to become Brown County's chief deputy prosecutor.
Szakaly allegedly wrote a letter to the aggrieved guest Katrina Arthur, stating her negative review included "false statements" that had caused "irreparable injury" to his business. Szakaly also threatened Arthur, saying if she didn't take down the review he'd file a libel lawsuit against her. "That scared me to death," Arthur told WRTV. "So I went ahead and took it down." Szakaly charged Arthur anyway, and now he and his former hotel are facing some serious civil penalties.
- Customer Charged $350 After Leaving Negative Review for Brown County Hotel, Lawsuit Alleges (WRTV)
- Online Reviewers Losing Anonymity in Defamation Cases (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Doctors Using Confidentiality Agreements to Prevent On Line Reviews (FindLaw's Common Law)
- How to Respond to a Negative Online Review (FindLaw's Free Enterprise)