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Can you get Sued for Leaving a Bad Review?

By Matt Lalande in Articles on December 09, 2020

Can you get Sued for Leaving a Bad Review?

Can you be sued for leaving a Negative Online Review?  The answer is yes, you can get sued – but it depends how bad the review is, and the motive behind it. It cost one Ontario man $116,000.00.

Online reviews have no doubt come a long way – and are heavily relied on in many industries, particularly in travel, retail and public service. Often times, Google – and Google reviews –  is mostly the first point of interaction between customer, client or patient. Moreover, Google has also recently introduced its own feature of reviews where users can post reviews directly on the Google Map listing or business’ Google Local Business page. Google reviews are one of the most essential assets a business can own. It is an effective way of maintaining a positive online reputation of your business. Small to medium business, and even leading companies, must gather reviews in order to generate positive image, attract potential customers, and to maintain strong image of the company.

Being a business owner, no matter the size, you probably already understand how important customer reviews are and how they can impact your business. In addition, customer reviews appear in numerous places around the web, including your business website, third party websites like Yelp, Twitter, Trip Advisor, ratemds.com, Facebook, and more.

Why do use businesses use reviews?

When these reviews are posted across the web, Google presents them in a form of paid or organic stars in its search results. These reviews help users determine the trustworthiness of the companies – and – it’s been said that over 94% of potential customers, clients and patients read google reviews before contacting and engaging the company or office they have interest in hiring.

This indicates that businesses must request / ask their customers to give them reviews, monitor the reviews they receive to maintain their online reputation, invest time in responding to those reviews (both positive and negative ones) and share their customer reviews on their social media profiles to attract potential customers.

The following are some of the major reasons why reviews are important for small businesses:

  • Reviews increase visibility;
  • Reviews enhance credibility;
  • Reviews enhance trustworthiness;
  • Reviews offer crucial feedback;
  • Reviews help determine the strength and weaknesses of a company;
  • Reviews connect businesses with clients and customers;
  • Reviews help with marketing.

Negative Reviews are Real – and for many Companies and People, are not Always Fair.

Being a business or service provider means you will no doubt interact different types of customers, patients and clients. While some are rather ideal customers, patients or clients who are polite and understanding even when they have had a negative experience, there are others that unfortunately have issues even when everything goes well!

Other customers leave reviews out of spite, anger or simply as a way to be vindictive towards a business or person that they are not happy with….or not to mention businesses taking it out on their competitors by leaving negative reviews on their listings.

In other situations, a customer might leave a negative review if he or she had a bad experience with your product or services, the customer has unrealistic expectations from your business, or perhaps there’s a misunderstanding or confusion regarding the usage of the product or services.

Other customers, patients or clients, even with a negative experience, thankfully leave behind constructive suggestions or edit their reviews when you deal with the problem they have had.

People however, tend to leave good reviews if they are happy with the service or product they have received.

One website, revlocal.com referred to recent study that divided complaints into three main categories:

Service issue: 52 percent complain about what they perceive as bad service;
Product issue: 31.4 percent complain about problems with products;
Policy issues: 16.6 percent will complain about policies they disagree with.

There are several popular online review sites related to service – such as RateMDs.com, a site launched in 2004 as a platform which allows patients, anonymous or not, to leave reviews for a particular doctor, dentist, specialist or hospital of their choosing. The site has been quite successful at generating revenue as a result of its high traffic source and ad sales to doctors, health care providers and insurance companies.

Unfortunately, and unfairly for some doctors, anonymous users can leave reviews that are defamatory, degrading, unfair, inaccurate or left in spite to intentionally to hurt that particular doctor’s reputation – leading the doctors with no other choice but to pay RateMD’s an annual fee to remove the rating.

Leaving a bad rating out of malice ended up costing an Ontario man $116,000.00 in damages and costs.

Recently, our Court of Appeal upheld a judgment in a defamation case, in the amount of $50,000 ($116,000 total with motion costs and appeal costs)  payable by the defendant Mr. James Graham, who left multiple derogatory comments about a doctor on a RateMDs.com and other websites.

The story started when Mr. Graham’s brother died following a surgery. Mr. Graham, together with his brother’s estate, and other family members, sued the attending physician and Hamilton Health Sciences Corporation. The medical negligence case went to trial and a Dr. Dick Zoutman was called to testify and give expert testimony on the legal issue of causation. The jury ultimately dismissed the lawsuit against both the surgeon and Hamilton Health Sciences.

After the trial, Mr. Graham admitted to posting to two derogatory comments about Dr. Zoutman on RateMDs.com, but had denied posting ten additional derogatory comments about Dr. Zoutman on both RateMDs.com and to other websites.

Dr. Zoutman asked Mr. Graham to remove the postings, but he refused.

In March of 2015, Dr. Zoutman sued both Mr. Graham and RateMDs for defamation. The lawsuit against RateMDs.com was eventually discontinued and the lawsuit against Mr. Graham proceeded to court.

The judge determined that Mr. Graham had in fact authored a total of 12 postings! The judge also found that the postings were defamatory, derogatory and degrading to Dr. Zoutman, both personally and professionally. Some of the posts went to the core of his integrity.

The judge awarded Dr. Zoutman general damages in the amount of $25,000, and aggravated damages in the amount of $25,000.  He also ordered a permanent injunction which prevented Mr. Graham from the publicizing defamatory comments relating to Dr. Zoutman. Lastly, he ordered Mr. Graham to pay costs of $50,000, all of which was appealed.

The Court of Appeal upheld the decision and agreed with the motions Judge that Mr. Graham was the author of all the defamatory postings. They motions court Judge had no hesitation in concluding that Mr. Graham was motivated by malice, a conclusion that was heavily dependent on factual findings evident from the postings. They ordered a further $16,000.00 for a total of $116,000.00 payable to Dr. Zoutman.

The takeaway on leaving a bad review?

Be very careful why, how and what you post when you decide to leave a negative review – which we suggest should only be done in the worst of circumstances.

This facts in this case are quite unusual, but in most circumstances, simply talking to the service provider or business about what you are unhappy about is the best way to go about things. Believe it or not, if you are courteous when you explain your disappointment, most providers or business will work with you to make things right.

That being said, defamation does exist in cases involving  negative online reviews, but only if there is evidence of malice. Otherwise, no such action for defamation will exist. Negative online reviews that are based on facts and honestly held, reasonable or unreasonably, will fall normally under something called “the fair comment defence” so long as the reviews are not derogatory, degrading and made out of malice.

There no doubt that business – and professionals take reviews very seriously because reviews can, in some cases,  influence the public. Brightlocal.com reported in October of 2019 that one negative review can drive away approximately 22% of customers, whereas around three negative reviews can drive away 59% of customers.

There is always that difficult balance however, between free speech and defamation. Customers no doubt have the right to express their opinion and service providers and companies have the right to have a right to defend their integrity and their reputation – both on and offline.

The next time you are tempted to leave a bad review, remember that it takes an instant to publish your thoughts, so make sure that you firstly try to remedy your situation by talking with the business or service provider  you are unhappy with. Negative reviews should not be left for trivial things such as a one time encounter with a rude clerk or the delay of a package.

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