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(Reuters) - The owner of a hotel in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains that had the dubious honor of topping TripAdvisor's 2011 list of America's dirtiest hotels cannot sue the travel website operator for defamation, a federal appeals court said.
Kenneth Seaton complained in a $10 million lawsuit that the ranking for his Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee was the product of a flawed rating system dependent on "unsubstantiated rumors," and intended to irreparably damage his business and reputation.
TripAdvisor, a travel website, said the ranking was based on traveler ratings for cleanliness.
But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Wednesday said travelers could not reasonably interpret the ranking as a statement that Grand Resort was in fact "America's dirtiest hotel," and that website operators deserve broad protection from lawsuits over reader-generated reviews.
While the hotel's entry had a photo of a ripped bedspread and a complaint from a TripAdvisor user about "dirt at least (1/2-inch) thick in the bathtub which was filled with lots of dark hair," Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore said no one would view this to conclusively mean the hotel deserved its ranking.
She also said "dirtiest" amounted to "rhetorical hyperbole," and that the general tenor of the list - including reader comments about other hotels such as "probably more sanitary to sleep in the bathroom" and "camp out on the beach instead" - showed that the list also served to entertain.
Grand Resort's ranking "is not capable of being understood as defamatory," Moore wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "Even the most careless reader must have perceived that 'dirtiest' is simply an exaggeration and that Grand Resort is not, literally, the dirtiest hotel in the United States."
Moore also said the prevalence of lists on the Web - such as "Top Ten Dumb Asses," and a Reader's Digest poll calling actor Tom Hanks the most trusted person in America and "Judge Judy" Sheindlin more trusted than any of the nine Supreme Court justices - reasonably suggests that such lists are opinion, not fact.
Wednesday's decision upheld an August 2012 ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips in Knoxville, Tennessee. The 6th Circuit also upheld Phillips' refusal to let Seaton add claims of trade libel and interference with prospective business.
"It is a victory for online review sites by letting them not only publish user comments but also draw conclusions," said Jeffrey Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University, which filed a legal brief supporting TripAdvisor. "This helps journalists and researchers who work with user-submitted data to inform the public."
Todd Shelton, a lawyer for Seaton, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Seaton could not immediately be reached for comment.
TripAdvisor spokeswoman Alison Croyle welcomed the decision, saying it serves "to protect the opinions of consumers online."
The Grand Resort closed in November and was sold, according to published reports, but remains on TripAdvisor's website. Of the 321 reviews, 265 rated the hotel "poor" or "terrible."
The case is Seaton v. TripAdvisor LLC, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 12-6122.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Eric Effron and Gunna Dickson