Why you can get sued for negative online reviews

Virtually every business these days gets reviewed online. And it’s a good thing. If, in the past, you wouldn’t know how good a business is unless you personally know someone who used it, today you can know it just by doing couple of clicks on the web.

Of course, you shouldn’t always trust all of the reviews. But it’s still a useful tool to assess the quality of a business you have never used before. And if the business in question did a bad job, you can write your own review of it, doing a small, but a well-deserved, dent in the company’s reputation.

But the ability to post negative reviews doesn’t mean that you should be posting anything that’s on your mind. When it comes to online reviews of businesses, unrestricted free speech doesn’t apply. And you may pay a dear price for sharing your experience.

For example, in UK, a man has been ordered to pay £25,000 in damages to a solicitor firm that he has reviewed online. The judges have ruled that the content of the review has amounted to slander and has caused real financial damage to the company.

Of course, if business keeps delivering exceptionally bad service to its customers, it deserves tons of negative reviews. And if its stream of income dries up, it only has itself to blame.

If you have been a customer that has received such a bad service, you would want to write about it, so other people know not to use this business. But what you absolutely don’t want is to end up in the same situation as this man has.

But there are specific reasons why this situation happened. Let’s learn from it together, so neither of us will end up sued for expressing an honest opinion.

How the solicitor firm has managed to sue its customer

Here is a short background to the story.

Philip James Waymouth has approached London Summerfield Browne, a London-based law firm, for a legal advice. He was not satisfied with the service, so he has posted a negative review of the firm on TrustPilot. He claimed that, after taking his payment, the law firm simply reiterated the same information he told them and have not provided any value whatsoever.

Afterwards, the law firm has sued the man and won. As the result, he was ordered to pay £25,000 for the “damages” the review has caused to the firm.

How exactly did they manage to pull this off? Well, it wasn’t difficult for them to do. While a layperson only has assumptions about how the law works, a solicitor firm knows how the law actually works. So they have used their professional knowledge against him.

But in short, he has made the following three mistakes:

  1. He did not turn up at the court hearing and didn’t send anyone to represent himself. This weakens your position. And, in some cases, the court would simply issue a default judgement against you.
  2. He has used the word “scam” in the review. While trying to tell the public that he felt being cheated, the word “scam” has a specific meaning in a legal context. It’s equivalent to an allegation of a criminal fraud. And the solicitor firm knew it.
  3. He has asked the law firm that he would take the review down if the firm issues a refund. This has undermined his defenses and he could no longer claim that he did the review in public interest.

The official summary of the court proceedings is available here for anyone who is interested.

Why businesses need protection against malicious reviewers

Even though what has happened may sound unjust to many people, there is a good reason why anti-slander laws exist. So the situation is not necessarily extraordinary.

Businesses do occasionally receive untruthful negative reviews that cause real damage to their reputation. This is especially true when such reviews are written by influential people, like bloggers.

For example, a South Korean YouTuber has managed to successfully shut down a restaurant. All he did was lie in a video about leftover rice being given to new customers. And his audience believed him. As the result, the restaurant’s reputation nose-dived and nobody wanted to go there anymore.

It was later found that the YouTuber has lied. And he has admitted it. But it was too late. The business has already closed.

And anti-slander laws exist precisely to protect businesses and individuals from this type of a situation. Malignant liars exist. Therefore these laws are necessary.

How to not end up in court for expressing your opinion

But don’t be afraid. Existence of libel laws doesn’t mean that you can’t express your honest opinion after experiencing some poor-quality service. You just need to follow some basic rules while writing online reviews.

But before I’ll go on, there is a little disclaimer here. This is not a legal advice. These points are based on my understanding of the law principles that are shared between developed democratic countries where the system of law actually works.

1. Never use exaggerated language

If the business in question took your money, but did not provide a service you expected, you will probably feel cheated. But this is not the reason to use words like “scam” and “fraud” in your review.

The problem is that these words, as well as many others, may mean something specific in a legal context. So, the company may use this against you.

You can put as much details of what happened as you want. But just use the facts. Say what happened and outline the reasons why you wouldn’t use this business again.

You can write how the action of the business has made you feel. But try not to use exaggerations in there either.

2. Don’t add any assumptions to your review

When you see many five-star reviews for a business that is obviously bad, it may be tempting to say that they probably hire bots to write those reviews for them. But please don’t.

It might be true, but you can’t know for certain. And if there is no evidence of wrongdoing, you will be, once again, writing an allegation of fraud.

So, only put those statements in your review that you know to be true.

3. Don’t offer to remove the review for a refund

Some companies will contact you after seeing a negative review and will offer you a refund (or some other form of reward) if you take the review down.

There is nothing wrong with it. It’s up to you whether you’ll find such offer reasonable or not. In a way, if the business has caused you some damage, then a refund is may be sufficient to repair such damage. Plus the company may have made an honest mistake in the first place.

But what you absolutely shouldn’t do is pro-actively offer them to remove a review in exchange for a refund. This can be classed as blackmail. And you will not be able to prove to anyone that your review was written in public interest.

4. If you are summoned to court – turn up

If you follow the previous three rules, being summoned to court over a review will be extremely unlikely. But if this happens, make sure that you either turn up at the hearing or get somebody to represent you there.

In many cases, not turning up will be viewed by the court as admitting the defeat. And the court would issue a default judgement against you.

But even if this doesn’t happen automatically, then your position will be weak anyway. There will be nobody to defend you against other side’s allegations. So they can say anything they want to make you lose.

Wrapping up

If you receive a bad service from a business, you are within your right to let the public know about it. And you don’t have to go through company’s own complaint procedures. Those procedures are not the law of the land.

But while writing such reviews, make sure you use appropriate language. The best strategy is to simply use an accurate description of all the facts that you know are true.

Remember that the laws that enable businesses to sue you for online slander exist for a reason.