Construction company owner sues over woman's posting on Angie's List

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As a first-time homeowner, Kay Borosky made a conscious decision that for all of the work that she needed to have done to her 100-year-old home in Carnegie, she would turn to Angie's List to find reputable contractors.

The online subscription service allows consumers to post grades and reviews about businesses they use, which in turn help other consumers know with whom they're dealing.

Ms. Borosky estimated she used the service 15 to 20 times since October, to find a plumber, electrician, interior designer and someone to install a back door and new windows.

Now, she is being sued for defamation.

The lawsuit, filed by Patrick Coburn, who owns Mt. Lebanon's Patnic Construction, alleges that Ms. Borosky posted false information on Angie's List, when she wrote that his business was not insured.

In her posting from April 3, Ms. Borosky first talks about Mr. Coburn's prices to replace three windows on her enclosed black porch, install a new back door, as well as some glass block windows in the basement as being too high. She characterizes him as a "very assertive salesman."

Then she wrote, "I decided against him because I checked Angie's List and discovered that he's not insured. I don't want to risk my homeowner's insurance increasing because of an accident. ... Nonetheless, he's a really nice guy. He sold me on the quality of his work, so I would consider getting another estimate from him if he got insurance."

Mr. Coburn, who has run his own company for 13 years, said he has always been insured. A check with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office home improvement contractor registration database -- which requires insurance -- shows that his current registration with the state is valid until July 2013.

Mr. Coburn said he felt compelled to file the lawsuit.

"I can't afford to have someone slander my name," he said. "She didn't even do business with me. I'm a small businessman. I've got a perfect reputation. I don't need that against me."

According to Ms. Borosky, when she first went on Angie's List to inquire about Mr. Coburn's company, she found only an initial profile that businesses are permitted to post about themselves. Under the section where it mentioned insurance, she said his answer was that he had none.

"He had clearly indicated it himself -- or Angie's List made a mistake," she said. "There was no reason to doubt the veracity of what's on there. I read it on Angie's List, and I knew I could trust it."

Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for Angie's List, said the company offers complaint resolution, but it's only applicable if service has been provided. In Ms. Borosky's case, since she didn't hire Mr. Coburn, that wouldn't have applied.

"The accuracy of the information on Angie's List is our No. 1 priority. That's why we encourage service companies to review the reports that they get and their profiles periodically," Ms. Reed said. As for the case at hand, "We're looking into the matter to determine what the company's profile was originally and if any changes had been made."

A few weekends ago, Mr. Coburn went back to Ms. Borosky's home. Mr. Coburn said he wanted to follow up with her to see if she still needed to have the work done.

But he also asked her about the Angie's List posting.

"I wanted to ask her where she came up with that," Mr. Coburn said. "I didn't come there to harass her. I was polite and asked her why she put that on there."

He said she got defensive. Ms. Borosky claims he was threatening.

"Coming to my door, shaking his finger in my face, accusing me of ruining his business. I didn't consider that a legitimate request," Ms. Borosky said. "He had a lot of choices. He didn't have to sue. He could have asked me in a civilized manner, but he didn't do that."

She called the police, who warned Mr. Coburn not to go back to her home.

He filed suit Aug. 21.

"If she takes that stuff off of there, it's cost me $500, but potentially [if she doesn't] I could lose hundreds of thousands," Mr. Coburn said.

Michael Streib, a law professor at Duquesne University, said defamation is among the most complicated areas of the law.

There could be liability for Ms. Borosky, he said.

"Certainly, she's liable if she published it knowing it to be false," he said.

In court, Ms. Borosky could potentially argue that for purposes of his claim that Mr. Coburn is a public figure -- who held himself out to be hired. If that's the case, he would have to show that Ms. Borosky knew her posting was false and that she acted with actual malice and reckless disregard.

"She will argue she was privileged to make the post because her speech includes a matter of interest to her and other people who might hire him," Mr. Streib said.

In some states, there is an obligation under the law to retract a false statement, he continued. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

"However, a failure to retract can be used as evidence you published it with malice or knowing it was false," Mr. Streib said. "The longer the posting stays there, it certainly adds to the damages because the more harm would befall the plaintiff."

Angie's List, which is not named as a defendant, would be protected if a lawsuit was filed against it because all the service is doing is providing a forum for other people to speak.

"They are not a content provider and are not really contributing to the content," he said. "They are simply compiling it."

Ms. Borosky does not believe she's liable for anything she posted online about Mr. Coburn's business.

"I'm going to be honest on Angie's List no matter what," she said. "The good thing about it is that businesses can't buy their way on there. It's transparent."

Ms. Borosky said a consumer can also tell when a review is legitimate or off the wall.

Ms. Reed confirmed that the company uses a combination of proprietary technology, human reviews and outside audits to ensure the grades being posted are from actual customers, and not from a business owner, friend or loved one.

"We have been very strong proponents for people to state their points of view, as long as they're telling the truth," Ms. Reed said. "They have freedom of expression."

Ms. Reed also went on to say that the company takes extensive steps to protect its members. "When a service provider threatens a member, that's not tolerated," she said.

If Angie's List becomes aware of a threat, an investigation is started, and it can result in a notice being attached to the service provider's profile.

Ms. Borosky believes a threat -- or being sued -- could scare people off from using the service. "If people are afraid to get sued, then the whole point of Angie's List is gone," she said. "I feel like, as a consumer, I'm protected by going to Angie's List."

legalnews - neigh_south

Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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