After nearly nine hours of deliberation, the jury in a closely-watched negative online review case tonight reached a split verdict that left both sides puzzled and a key ruling yet to be made.
The jury ruled in favor of Washington-based contractor Christopher Dietz on his charge that former client Jane Perez defamed his character and breached her end of their work contract by neglecting to pay for nearly $9,500 worth of work performed on her Fairfax, Va., home.
But the jury ruled for Perez in her countersuit for a separate case of defamation of character, breach of contract and trespassing that she says took place in 2012. She also sued Dietz for alleged theft, but the jury rejected that charge.
Although the jury found Perez's remarks defamatory, the judge did not rule whether she would have to remove the online postings. Dietz's attorney told REMODELING she expects that ruling at a later date.
No damages were awarded to either side.
"I'm still kind of shocked," said Dietz moments after the verdict. "I'm still trying to process everything." Perez looked equally shocked as she left the courtroom, but declined to comment.
Still, Dietz says he won, at least by moral victory. "To be not called a criminal is good," he told REMODELING in an interview.
Earlier today, attorneys for both sides led the jury through summaries of the complicated case during their closing arguments.
Plaintiff attorney Sara Kropf argued this was a "case about a person who went too far," referring to Perez. According to Kropf, Perez's negative reviews met the legal criteria for defamation of character: they were posted about Dietz in a public setting, they lacked truth, and Perez knowingly posted the reviews in "negligence," meaning she knew her claims were speculation, or worse, outright false.
"Jewelry was found missing from my home and this contractor had the only extra key," Perez wrote in her Yelp review.
But the defense argued that Perez merely made statements of fact in her reviews: Dietz did in fact have the only other key to the home, and Perez's jewelry did go missing as filed in a report she made to police.
Although the allegations of shoddy workmanship were acknowledged, both sides disagreed over exactly what took place in Perez's home.
The defense argued Dietz left the house in disrepair and cited several photos showing damaged floors and walls painted two different colors. But Dietz's attorney pointed out in her closing arguments that some of the photos appeared to have been taken in 2010, and others months after Perez cut ties.
Dietz said he lost five to 10 proposals worth an estimated $500,000 because of Perez's reviews, and that his business suffered as a result of visibility of the case and the subsequent appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.
To the contrary, defense attorney Raymond Battocchi said it was Perez, not Dietz, who suffered the greater loss of credibility. He argued Dietz went on a "joy ride" of television appearances and magazine interviews that sunk Perez's reputation and kept her out of work.
"Her life was turned upside down," Battocchi said, citing the fact that Google searches for her name now primarily link to her defense of the case.
Additionally, Battocchi said Perez was "terrified" of Dietz after she had terminated his work contract, and wrote her reviews as an attempt to warn others.
In her rebuttal, Kropf said Perez wasn't warning clients, but instead went "on a campaign" to tarnish Dietz's reputation and name, penning nearly six reviews on different sites throughout 2012 and reporting Dietz to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation on the grounds that Dietz did not have a license when he worked on her home.
Dietz was arrested on that charge in 2013.
Ultimately, the case boiled down to a debate of Perez's intent: Was she merely warning others of her experience, or acting out a personal vendetta?
In the end, the jury ruled that although Perez had defamed Dietz, Dietz had done the same afterward.
"I see this as a complete vindication of consumers’ right to criticize business owners online," said Paul Alan Levy, Perez's attorney during her appeal before Virginia's Supreme Court. "It is a reminder that just because someone has said something you don’t like about them, and even if what they said is in some way a bit false, that does not mean it makes any sense to run to court."