An Indiana hotel allegedly retaliated against a woman who wrote bad online review by charging a $350 fee to her debit card and threatening legal action, WRTV-TV reported.
The Indiana attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit Dec. 15 that alleges the hotel violated the Indiana Deceptive Consumer Sales Act.
Katrina Arthur and her husband stayed at the Abbey Inn & Suites in Brown County in March 2016 after they planned a weekend getaway. But they found the experience more aggravating than relaxing.
Arthur called it a “nightmare.”
The couple arrived to find an unkempt room that looked and smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned.
“We checked the sheets and I found hairs and dirt," she said.
The room smelled like raw sewage, the water pressure was low, and the air conditioner was broken, Arthur said, adding that there were no employees around to hear their complaints or address the problems.
Can people get sued for bad reviews?
Abbey Inn has a written policy that allows them to charge customers $350 for bad reviews. But the policy is buried in a seven-page document and is not explained to customers, according to the lawsuit. The state's lawsuit alleges the hotel violated Indiana’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act through a policy that is “unfair, abusive, and deceptive.”
The lawsuit indicated the hotel policy states:
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 be entitled to charge their credit card an additional $350 damage. Should the guest refuse to retract any such public statements legal action may be pursued.
Did the hotel ask for a review?
Arthur let loose when the hotel emailed her to ask for an online review.
"I was honest," Arthur told the TV station. "I wanted people to know not to waste their money because I know people save their money for special occasions."
After posting the review, Arthur said the hotel charged her debit card $350. She also received a letter from the hotel that threatened legal action.
"That scared me to death," Arthur said. She later deleted the negative review.
In a written statement, hotel owner Andrew Szakaly said the fine is intended to stop was is known in the hospitality industry as "social media blackmail."
"A guest would complete their stay, leave without making any complaints regarding their stay, then later demand a refund or they would post negative comments regarding the inn on social media," he wrote.
The attorney general's office got involved after Arthur filed a complaint to try to get back her $350.
Did this violate her free speech?
"I feel like they were punishing me for being truthful and I don't think that's fair," Arthur said. "I was very angry they had done that."
Mike Blumenthal at GetFiveStars.com, a platform that helps companies gather customer feedback, told WRTV the allegations about Abbey Inn are “egregious.”
“Reviews have long been an area where free speech has been protected and promoted,” said Blumenthal. “The ability for a consumer to say what they want about a business via an online review is largely protected at both the state and federal level. This question has long been settled and it is amazing to me that any business in this day and age would think that they could constrain a consumer in such a way.”
The state is seeking more than $5,000 in damages.