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Landlord Torches Reputation With Twitter-Driven Lawsuit

By far the most entertaining tech story to go around the Web this week has been the tale of how a Chicago apartment-management firm sued a woman for incinerating its reputation by posting a Twitter update that almost nobody read.

Seriously, you can't make this up.

The story surfaced on Monday, when blogger Marian Wang reported that Horizon Realty Group had just sued its former tenant Amanda Bonnen for $50,000 -- plus court costs -- alleging defamation for this Twitter post, written in May:

You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment is bad for you? Horizon Realty thinks it's okay.

Bonnen had a total of 20 followers when Wang wrote that story (though her account has since vanished). In other words, this tweet was the equivalent of a pebble tossed into the Potomac.

But that's nothing that a little publicity can't fix! The story has since gone around the Web multiple times, earning coverage from as far away as Sydney, Australia.

Horizon kept digging in its initial response; a Chicago Sun-Times story quoted Horizon's Jeff Michael as saying: "We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization."

(When I recounted that response to a roomful of lawyers in D.C. yesterday, they laughed at the foolishness of it.)

If the lawsuit didn't suggest to previously uninterested bystanders that Horizon might be a company best avoided, that quote probably has.

In a post on Social Media Today, writer Augie Ray observed that Horizon's misadventures graphically demonstrate how the Web has finally evened the odds for customers facing lawsuits from companies:

As Horizon is about to learn the hard way, companies can no longer effectively manage their reputation via legal actions and consumers are no longer at a disadvantage in the face of bullying lawsuits.

Before, if some corporation threatened to haul you into court, the high cost of competent legal representation alone would push you to settle the case. Now, that company is liable to find that the costs of the resulting, Web-fueled bad PR outweigh whatever its litigious thuggery might collect.

Horizon has since attempted to defend itself by issuing a press release reportedly saying that the "sue first" comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, no mold was ever found in Bonnen's apartment, and she had sued it first (its brief filing doesn't mention a prior suit). But Horizon is still having problems with this whole "use the Internet to talk to the public" concept -- the link on its home page to the press release leads to a page featuring only an error message that says: "The system cannot find the file specified."

I suspect things are only going to get worse for this firm. But that doesn't mean other companies can't learn from its example.

Let me spell that lesson out as bluntly as possible to anybody tempted to pull Horizon's kind of stunt: If you're too dumb to understand that sites like Twitter merely make public the things customers already say to each other in private -- and that the only sane response is, at the very least, to act like you're listening to their concerns -- then you're too dumb to be on the Internet in the first place. Go back to watching TV.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  July 30, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Yahoo's Search Leads It To Microsoft
Next: The State of the Laptop, 2009: Progress Stalls Out


Tell Horizon Group Management exactly how you feel about their actions:

Posted by: noneofyourbiznez | July 31, 2009 6:59 AM | Report abuse

I formerly worked for a local Corporation and they decided it was a good idea to go after an individual who ran an industry website. The site was posting joke comments about our CEO. Some nasty demand letters were sent by a law firm. Needless to say the site kept posting, added to it, posted the demand letters from the law firm and Company and basically turned the whole thing into a PR disaster.

Posted by: pjjacobs | July 31, 2009 8:00 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if Ms. Wang has a case against Horizon for harassment?

Posted by: ajsmithva | July 31, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Oops, not Wang, Bonnen.

Posted by: ajsmithva | July 31, 2009 8:19 AM | Report abuse

For those 'sue first, ask questions later' kind of firms there's

Federal Rule 11 ++++ SANCTIONS ++++

All states have an equivalent rule ---------- and it doesn't pay to sue first and ask questions later

unless those questions are

Interrogatories ------- UGH !!!

Take the Bar Exam First

Practice Law After Passing ---- LOL

Posted by: | July 31, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Forget individual tweets! Now there are twitter accounts dedicated to mangy, fang-toothed critter slum landlords very much like the one cited in this piece.

Here's an example:

Posted by: tuzoner | July 31, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

To really hurt Horizon, just tweet this completely factual statement by Horizon:

"We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization."

Only the desperate or moronic would do business with a company with this attitude towards its customers. Truth is a absolute defense.

Posted by: Garak | July 31, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Companies have to be part of the conversation. It's good business. I, for one, will never rent from Horizon.

Posted by: BaracksTeleprompter | July 31, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for this hilarious PR-lesson. Yes indeed the power comes to the people. Now customers can start threatening (and even blackmailing) companies iso vice versa. a very very difficult challenge for PR departments everywhere.

Re: ajsmithva. After a 'sue first, questions later' remark it would indeed be very nice if Ms. Bonnen can sue for harassment. Any lawyer amongst the readers who can shine a light on this?

I love the 'Go back to your TV remark'.

Posted by: paulschoe | August 1, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

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