By BRETT BARROUQUERE
There was nothing dirty — or defamatory — about including a Tennessee hotel on an unflattering list on a travel website because it’s clear the inclusion was based on opinions, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bid by the former owner of the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to reinstate a defamation lawsuit against the site TripAdvisor.
Judge Karen Nelson Moore concluded for the court that the hotel’s inclusion on the “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list doesn’t rise to the level of defamation because it is obvious the list simply communicates the opinions of TripAdvisor users.
“First, TripAdvisor’s use of ‘dirtiest’ amounts to rhetorical hyperbole,” Moore wrote. “Second, the general tenor of the ‘2011 Dirtiest Hotels’ list undermines any impression that TripAdvisor was seriously maintaining that Grand Resort is, in fact, the dirtiest hotel in America.”
Then-hotel owner Kenneth M. Seaton sued Newton, Mass-based TripAdvisor in 2011. He accused the website of defamation and portraying his business in a way that would keep customers away.
Judge Thomas W. Phillips in Knoxville rejected the claims in August 2012.
Attempts to locate Seaton were unsuccessful Wednesday. The hotel shut down in late 2012 and was sold to a holding company.
Alison Croyle, a spokeswoman for TripAdvisor, applauded the court’s decision “as it continues to protect the opinions of consumers online.”
TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the world’s largest travel site, aids people in gathering travel information, posting reviews and opinions of travel-related content and engaging in interactive travel forums.
The site compiles best and worst lists and includes customer comments about featured places.
Such lists are common online — including compilations of the most trusted, most handsome and dumbest people — and a reasonable reader understands that placement on such a list is not a statement of fact, Moore wrote.
For the “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list, the Grand Resort was listed first among 10 entries. The accompanying comment from an unnamed guest said: “If you are looking for a hotel with chewing tobacco spit oozing down the halls and corridors; spiders actively making webs in every corner of your room; carpeting so greasy and dirty you wouldn’t want to sit your luggage down - let alone walk around barefoot…… by all means, stay at The Grand Resort.”
Moore cited that comment and others on the list as proof that TripAdvisor wasn’t using a scientific method to determine which hotels were actually the dirtiest in the country.
“The quotations regarding other hotels on the ‘2011 Dirtiest Hotels’ list confirm that the list cannot be reasonably understood as asserting that the hotels on the list are, in fact, the ten dirtiest in America,” Moore wrote.