Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au’s weekly column solving all your legal problems. This week our resident lawyers and real-life sisters Alison and Jillian Barrett of Maurice Blackburn advise on a company’s right to sue for defamation.
ASK: I recently ordered takeaway from my local – and the food was so disgusting it was inedible. It was all greasy, limp and, worst of all, the chicken looked like it wasn’t even there anymore, so I was too afraid to eat it. I contacted the restaurant and asked for a refund but they refused, so I gave them a one star review online. Now they are threatening to sue me for defamation. Should I be afraid or are they just trying to bully me? – Alice, S.A
ANSWER: Alice, it sounds like you’ve posted an honest account of your experience, and assuming it was written respectfully, you probably have little to worry about.
With this in mind, we will provide you with a brief overview of defamation law so that you are equipped to handle this situation.
Defamation means damaging the reputation of a person or company by publishing material about them that changes people’s attitudes towards them.
“Publishing” is a broad term and includes speaking, writing, blogging, social media posts, and in your case, a Google review.
If the review you leave harms the restaurant’s reputation, causes customers or potential customers to think less of them or not buy food there, and the information is false, then you could be defaming them and risk being sued.
However, if your review is substantially truthful, you will be able to defend yourself against any defamation claims the restaurant may bring against you.
You may also be able to argue that it was not libel if the review:
• was presented as your opinion and not a statement of fact
• was a matter of public interest (to prevent others from potentially getting food poisoning)
• was not created with “malice” or malicious intent – it was simply based on your honest opinion
• was based on evidence; In this regard, any photos or videos you took of the food, as well as a receipt or record of your order, will be helpful
• Was so insignificant that it was unlikely to damage the restaurant’s reputation
In general, the reason a person or company may sue for defamation is to set the record straight, obtain an apology, and obtain damages (monetary) for the harm suffered.
To receive compensation in South Australia, the restaurant must prove that your review alone caused “serious harm” to its reputation.
In this case, serious harm would have to be, for example, a significant reduction in their business income.
If there are other scathing one-star reviews, it might be difficult to show them.
The restaurant may just want you to remove the review. You may consider this if you want their threats to stop or as a precautionary measure if you have concerns about the content of your review.
We have assumed that your review (even if the content were true) was written in a non-threatening and intimidating manner.
Be aware that persistent messages, emails, social media posts or reviews that are threatening, harassing or menacing may result in criminal prosecution.
As consumers, we have the power to influence companies where it hurts them – their bottom line – by deciding where we spend our hard-earned money.
This legal information is general in nature and should not be relied upon or relied upon as specific legal advice. Persons requiring specific legal advice should consult an attorney. If you have a legal question you would like Alison and Jillian to answer, please email Stories@news.com.au. Find out more from Alison and Jillian on their Facebook page.