Under the Influence

Can you be sued for leaving a negative online review?

Over 90 per cent of us read online reviews before purchasing a product these days. And those ratings can make or break a company or product.
Welcome to the new world of online reviews. (AFP/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode27:28

We now live in the era of never-ending customer reviews. You can leave reviews on a company, a cup of coffee and even your dentist.

It's interesting that in this post-truth era, 65 per cent of us trust online reviews.

Especially when they are so hard to police.

Yet, almost all of us use online reviews before buying a product. Or before going to a new restaurant. And we leave reviews for everything now from a haircut to an Uber driver. And we hope the reviews we see are as honest as the reviews we give.

But what happens when a negative review has a negative impact on a brand, and that brand decides to sue?

This week, we explore the world of Online Reviews. These days you can leave a review for anything - from a cup of coffee to your dentist. 90% of us read online reviews before buying a product - that’s why those reviews are so influential. Yet how do you tell fake ones from the real thing? Thumbs up or thumbs down, welcome to the world of online reviews. Hope you'll join us. 0:57

There have been many cases in recent years where companies have sued reviewing customers for libel.

An Ontario couple was sued when a building contractor filed a $3M defamation suit for posting negative reviews about bad workmanship.

A Vancouver law firm filed a $15,000 defamation suit against a former client who had posted what the firm felt was an unjustified negative review.

The judge in the case awarded the law firm one dollar - saying the case should never have been brought forward. He said no reasonable, well-informed person would make a decision based on a single negative review.

The law firm disagreed with the ruling, saying it has lost business as a result of the review, has experienced violent online backlash and has since received more scathing reviews from people who have never been clients. Furthermore, the lawyers stated this kind of ruling opens the doors to more unjustified attacks on companies, giving companies no recourse.

Some companies try to use gag orders. A Hamilton woman challenged what she felt was an outrageous $280 service-call charge from an appliance company who then charged her an additional $700 for the repair. She was offered a $35 refund - but only if she signed a waiver agreeing not to post a negative review. She refused.

Companies take reviews very seriously because reviews are very influential, but they're also a delicate balance between free speech and defamation.

The public has a right to express an opinion about a product or service. Companies have a right to defend their reputations.

The Internet has made this balance fraught with difficulty. Online reviews are instant, they can be forwarded, hyperlinked and can go global. A positive review can boost a company and a bad review never goes away.

Here's a check-list one law firm put together to avoid defamation when posting a negative review:

One:

Don't assume posting an anonymous review will protect you from a lawsuit. Many courts have ordered Internet providers to hand over IP addresses of anonymous online reviewers.

Two:

Give your opinion and only state facts you can back up. If you feel the service was bad, that's an opinion. If you say you saw rats in the restaurant, you just might be called upon to show evidence.

Three:

Only review the product or service - not the character of the person who provided it. That moves into problematic defamation territory.

Lastly, be truthful - not malicious or vindictive. If you are filled with rage, it's not a good time to post a review. Cool down, then write it.


For more stories about The New World of Online Reviews, click or tap the "Listen" button above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our podcast.


Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search the hashtag: #Terstream.

The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)