Ottawa woman threatened with lawsuit over negative reviews
Company's lawyer says Alexia Matte's two bad reviews are equivalent to an 'internet smear campaign'
An Ottawa woman is refusing to back down after she was threatened with a six-figure lawsuit for posting negative online reviews of a local restoration company.
Alexia Matte, 32, hired Canada's Restoration Services (CRS) after her mother's basement flooded when a sump pump failed on Jan. 12. But she wasn't satisfied with the work that was carried out and decided to post negative reviews on Google and on the website of the Better Business Bureau.
'Two negative online reviews does not constitute a smear campaign by any stretch of the imagination.' - Alexia Matte
Her reviews detail a number of complaints about CRS including that she was overcharged, that workers arrived late and that the company ignored some of her requests.
CRS said the allegations are untrue, the cost was "100% reasonable" and Matte only became aggravated about it when she learned she was "underinsured."
CBC could not independently verify either party's allegations. In a statement to CBC the company's lawyer said CRS is a "highly reputable and reliable company with overwhelmingly positive reviews".
Threat of 6-figure lawsuit
On Feb. 9, a week after she posted the reviews Matte received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer acting on behalf of CRS, which operates in five Canadian cities including Ottawa.
The letter cites a recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision awarding a plaintiff $700,000 in damages for an "internet smear campaign" as an example of the steep penalty Matte could face.
The lawyer's letter also gave Matte a stark choice: either taken down the "malicious" reviews, or change them to "positive" ones.
"I felt like the company was trying to bully me, I guess, into submission," Matte told CBC News.
'Feel the pain'
In the Feb. 9 letter to Matte, the company lawyer drew parallels between her reviews and the Toronto case, accusing both reviewers of attempts to make the companies involved "feel the pain."
But Cara Zwibel, a director with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the cases are not the same. One of the key differences is that in the Toronto example the defendants admitted liability in trying to smear a former business associate.
"They're very different situations … but to a layperson reading the letter it's certainly scary to see that $700,00 judgment and be told this is exactly the same kind of thing you're doing," Zwibel said.
"If you actually look at the case I don't think that's an apt comparison."
Ultimatum went too far, prof says
Brett Caraway, a professor of media law and economics at the University of Toronto, said the lawyer's letter was meant to elicit an "emotional" response from Matte, and went too far.
"To push it one step further and say, 'Actually, turn this into a positive review,' is overreach in my opinion," he said.
CBC has reported on the lack of protection for consumers who post reviews online and businesses targeted by unfair reviews.
The Ontario Civil Liberties Association said ideally a company would counter negative reviews online with evidence and documentation about its good work, not threaten to launch a lawsuit.
"The effect ... [is] to chill freedom of speech in Canada," Joseph Hickey, executive director of the OCLA, told CBC News.
Charter rights not violated, lawyer says
CRS was not available for an interview, but the company's lawyer, Robert Karrass, said in a written statement to CBC that "Ms. Matte's civil liberties and Charter rights have not been violated, she has the right to post but my client also has the right not to be defamed.
"Although the Charter gives an individual the right to express themselves including through posts on the internet, those rights are subject to reasonable limits."
He went on to say a cease and desist letter is a common avenue that "gives the recipient the opportunity to stop and potentially reduce the damages they have exposed themselves to."
Karrass said the company only asked Matte to change her review to a positive one as an option, in case she was unable to remove her original post.
Limits to freedom of speech
Ottawa-based lawyer David Sherriff-Scott successfully defended a publisher of online reviews in a recent court case.
In a recent judgment regarding a dispute over the publication of a negative online review, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled the Better Business Bureau (BBB) was protected by what's known as "fair comment."
'People always have to be cautious when they express themselves in public that they are doing it responsibly.' - David Sherriff-Scott, lawyer
Sherriff-Scott acted for the BBB in the case. He said fair comment can be invoked as a defence when people express their opinion about a matter of public interest, when that opinion is based on known and provable facts contained in the review.
But he still advises people to be careful about what they post online, and warns there are limits to freedom of speech.
"People always have to be cautious when they express themselves in public that they are doing it responsibly. The problem is, the general public is not aware of the components of the successful application of the fair comment defence in a defamation case. People tend to just speak their minds spontaneously," he said.
In the meantime, Matte has yet to pay CRS for the restoration work, and said she's ready to take the company on in court.
"Two negative online reviews does not constitute a smear campaign by any stretch of the imagination," Matte said.
"It's stressful... but I'm not going to back down. You can't bully unhappy customers, and I don't think I'm being unreasonable in anything I've said. Everything I've said I can prove."