Malicious or fictitious: hope for victims of false online reviews?

Receiving negative feedback is never pleasant but as long as it is can be pinned to a genuine act or omission that a customer found unsatisfactory, there is an opportunity to use the feedback constructively and correct business practice where necessary.  We have considered what can be done about negative feedback in our blog "All publicity is not good publicity: how to handle negative online reviews" but what can a business do if it finds itself at the receiving end of a false or malicious online review?

A Legal Solution

This question was recently put to the test by Colorado-based law firm which successfully sued 20 year old British internet troll Jay Page in the High Court for posting a libelous false review on the firms' Google Maps profile (see: The Bussey Law Firm PC  v Page [2015] EWHC 563 (QB)).

The review read as follows:  

“A Google User received 10 months ago
Overall Poor to fair 
Scumbag Tim Bussey, pays for false reviews, loses 80% of his cases. 
Not a happy camper
3 out of 3 found this review helpful”

Mr Page had no previous relationship with the Claimant firm but the Claimants established that Mr Page had advertised on Twitter as being willing to post “feedback” for $5 via the Fiver.com website. 

In a decision that gives no concession for false reviewers, whatever their motive and seemingly whatever their means, the court sent a clear message that a remedy is available for victims of malicious and false negative reviews.  The court awarded the two Claimants (the law firm and Mr Bussey, the individual lawyer embroiled in the review) £50,000 in damages and the Defendant was ordered to pay more than £100,000 in damages and costs combined. 

Had the Claimants not already agreed a voluntary cap on damages, the figure would have been higher and the court was minded to award damages on a punitive basis (with the aim of punishing the Defendant) as well as damages for hurt feelings and distress and for injury to reputation.   

The Practical Reality

The good news for businesses faced with false negative reviews is that a remedy is available in theory, though obviously the cost of litigation will be very high.  Even where litigation is not a viable option, the current predicament of Mr Page should encourage reviewers to remove false review, or, preferably, not post them in the first place.

The bad (and disappointing) news is that the publicity resulting from the judgment appears to have done the Claimant firm no favours.  At the time of writing, there has been a 77% increase in reviews on the Claimant firms' Google Maps profile.  That's 10 reviews in the last two weeks alone out of a total of 23 posted over a 3 year period. 

The 13 reviews that existed before March 2015 all have a five star rating.

Each of the 10 reviews received since March 2015 received one star.

This serves as a reminder that the 'legal' solution may not always be make the most commercial sense.  The publicity from this case has seemingly made the Claimant firm a target of revenge reviews, or perhaps they are genuine reviews, who knows? That is precisely the problem.  As a result, the Claimants may be left asking "Was it worth it?".  

For further information, or if you or your business has been subject to malicious or false reviews, please contact Jayne Clemens, Solicitor in the Commercial & Regulatory Disputes team and defamation specialist with a particular focus on the removal of libellous material from websites and social media on jayne.clemens@michelmores.com or 01392 687724.