Can You Really Get Sued For Writing A Bad Online Review?

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Most of us have probably been enraged at some point by poor customer service and have wanted to let the world know about it. Whether it be to your loyal following on social media or anonymously on a product review site, we've all been there.

While it definitely doesn't solve the original problem, it leaves us feeling vindicated and that's what truly matters. Except that vindication could come at a huge cost.

The other week, I found myself in a desperate situation and ordered from a certain food delivery company. The experience was, shall I say, less than enjoyable and so I reluctantly put on my angry customer hat and proceeded to complain. When that got nowhere, I retreated and headed straight for the safety of a top-rated review site where I could air my complaints and warn other customers about the dumpster-fire service they were about to receive.

I was salty and I was hangry and I felt I had been wronged. Turns out, I was not the first nor the last person to have this exact problem and my complaints were mirrored by other disgruntled customers. See? Vindication.

But what happens when that bad review turns into an expensive court case?

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This is exactly what happened to an Australian woman who wrote a negative review on Google Review about a cosmetic surgeon who happened to be her ex-husband. She was taken to court for damages, according to court documents.

The big difference between my hangry dispute and this woman's legal battle, however, was that her review was proven to be "false" by the courts. She was ordered to pay $530,000 in damages on top of his legal costs.

It got us thinking...

Can you be sued for writing a negative review online?

The hard and fast of it, in Australia, is yes. While many Australians like to assume we have the same freedom of speech rights as our US counterparts, the truth is we really don't.

Defamation is covered under the Defamation Act 2005, which varies a little bit across each state but covers the usual suspects. Essentially, you are liable to be sued for defamation if you write or say false or damaging statements that negatively impact someone's personal or professional reputation.

While the biggest defamation cases have usually been reserved for writers at media outlets, like the infamous Sydney Morning Herald food critic case, your angry reviews could also fall into this category.

But, unlike the United States, companies in Australia cannot sue individual Australians for damages unless they have fewer than 10 employees. That means writing a critical review about a famous hotel chain would probably be fine (provided its not a fabrication) but writing about your personal differences with Dave, your local barista at a small café down the road, is a big no-no.

The important distinction to make is that your product or service reviews must not be deliberately malicious and should strive to be as honest as possible.

Law firm, Slater and Gordon, offer some handy advice to those still wanting to tell the online world about their experiences with a business but are a little unsure how to navigate it.

  • The review should be treated as if it is being published to the world at large, given how fast online publications can spread (or go viral).
  • It is not published for an ulterior motive.
  • The review is truthful and accurate about any experience you have. This doesn’t mean you can’t use humour or satire in making your review enjoyable for others to read.
  • There can be serious repercussions if an online communication is defamatory of a person/business.

And what happens if my salty review lands in hot water?

There are defenses if someone is accusing you of being defamatory and one of the best defenses is truth. It will be up to the small business or individual to prove that your review is untrue and that you are intentionally aiming to disrupt their business. You could also be publishing this review in order to raise public concern for an issue.

Obviously, we are not lawyers here so the best advice if you are suddenly sprung with a defamation accusation is to get legal advice to figure out your best course of action.

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At the end of the day, writing your review may feel like a good way to let the world know your pain with a company but don't let it turn into a court case setting you back thousands of hard-earned dollars. That's more painful than any undelivered takeaway dinner.


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