In October 2015, Robert and Michele Duchouquette hired Prestigious Pets to pet-sit their two dogs and Gordy, a small Betta fish. Prestigious Pets had the Duchouquettes sign a contract. The Duchouquettes were unhappy with the care of their fish. They wrote a 1-star review on Yelp. Here’s the part Prestigious Pets complained about:
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.
Pretty mild, as Yelp reviews go. It turned out the contract had an anti-disparagement clause. Prestigious Pets sued the Duchouquettes for defamation and breach of contract. Over a $118 pet-sitting contract.
You can’t make this stuff up.
The trial judge threw the case out and awarded the Duchouquettes their court costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees and allowed an award of sanctions “sufficient to deter them from bringing similar actions.”
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.
There is, after all, still a First Amendment, and just perhaps it is important enough that vendors should not be permitted to try to contract our First Amendment rights away.
(Props to Public Citizen and its volunteer lawyers for stepping up to help defend this case.)