By Kim Cotton
PORT ST. LUCIE - A negative dining review has landed one daily newspaper in court.
Delmonico Grill in Port St. Lucie has filed a lawsuit against Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and its restaurant reviewer, Patricia Smith, for a review the owners of the restaurant say was negative and inaccurate.
"They have the responsibility to print and write the truth," said owner Michelle Deroche.
The lawsuit was filed last year with the 19th Judicial Circuit court. The newspaper filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but a judge saw merit in the case and allowed it to go forward.
Ms. Deroche and her business partners, Julie and Wayne Goings, filed the lawsuit against Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers after a review of their restaurant appeared in the Port St. Lucie News on Sept. 6 of last year.
The review by Ms. Smith panned the restaurant and included comments that Ms. Deroche said are presented as fact, but are in her opinion false.
The first point of the review Ms. Deroche said was false is the description of the interior of the restaurant. Ms. Smith described the interior as having "dimmed lights," and a "dark décor," that was something from "restaurants from the north in the '60s, where it would be completely normal to find people sipping gimlets or martinis before digging into dinner."
Ms. Smith also described the temperature as the "chill of arctic air."
Ms. Deroche disagrees with the description.
"When you read the review, it makes the restaurant sound like a cave," she said.
Ms. Deroche points to two pages in "The Official Dining Guide," a full-color publication featuring area restaurants. Delmonico Grill has an ad in the magazine next to an ad for an Italian restaurant in Stuart. Both ads feature photographs of the interior. The restaurants have similar interiors, Ms. Deroche said, yet the other restaurant was described in a past dining review by Ms. Smith as "cozy and inviting."
Another aspect of the review Ms. Deroche felt was inaccurate was the food desciptions. Ms. Smith stated in her review that a stuffed pepper had been "previously prepared and had not been reheated properly."
"I have a receipt that states we purchased the pepper two hours before it was served," Ms. Deroche said. "We prepare everything to order."
There were other parts of the dish descriptions that Ms. Deroche and her partners claim were inaccurate in the review. Mrs. Goings said the review did not include everything that came with the meals, such as fresh bread.
"When you look at other reviews, they are not the same," said Mr. Goings, who is also the chef of Delmonico Grill.
Ms. Smith, who is named in the lawsuit, said she has been advised not to speak about the matter, but did state she stands behind her review.
"I am confident that both Scripps' right to publish, as well as my right to express my opinion and write the review, will be vindicated at the conclusion of the proceedings," Ms. Smith stated in an e-mail.
Since the review was published, the owners of the restaurant said they have suffered a dramatic decrease in business. The owners have spent the last three years building their clientele through word of mouth.
"We had a full staff and managed the restaurant in the beginning," Ms. Deroche said. "Now we are our own staff. We have to wait the tables because it is the only way to stay open."
Lawsuits based on bad dining reviews is nothing new to the American court system. Earlier this year, a restaurant in Pennsylvania sued a newspaper for a review on the basis of libel. A Dallas newspaper was sued several years ago for the same thing. The Pennsylvania case is still ongoing, while the Dallas case was dropped after the newspaper gave another review of the restaurant.
David Giles, an attorney for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, said it is his newspaper's responsibility to provide a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.
"Commentaries, self-help and reviews provoke thought and discussion within the community," Mr. Giles stated in an e-mail. "Scripps believes strongly that opinion, regardless of whether it is analysis, satire or review, is an important part of a newspaper's service to its readers."
He added that Scripps is within its right to publish the dining review.
The owners of Delmonico Grill say the damage is done. The review remains on the Internet for people to read, and even with positive support with letters, e-mails and postings on the newspaper's Web site from loyal customers, Ms. Deroche says she wants to help protect other small, privately owned restaurants from what she calls "untrue reviews."
"One goal from the very beginning of this is to hopefully make a difference and make the reporter accountable to tell the truth," Ms. Deroche said. "We want to make a change so someone doesn't go through what we've gone through."
The lawsuit is now in the discovery and deposition phase, since the judge allowed the case to go forward. During this phase, attorneys are gathering evidence and testimony regarding the lawsuit. Court procedures are followed during this time.
It is unknown at press time when the lawsuit is scheduled to return to court.