Have you ever had a meal at a restaurant or a hair-dye so bad that you were tempted to immediately jump on TripAdvisor, Burpple or other reviewing sites to write about that waitress who spilt hot tea on you and didn’t apologise, or the hairdresser who dyed your hair an entirely different shade from what you asked for?
With businesses being much more mindful of their online presence and reputation in this Information Age, it may be prudent to consider if your negative reviews online can attract any legal repercussions.
Can you get into legal trouble for posting a bad review?
The short answer to this question is yes, it is possible to attract legal trouble for posting negative reviews online, but this is only if your comment is defamatory.
What is defamation?
Defamation can attract both criminal and civil action. In the context of online reviews, negative reviews are highly unlikely to result in criminal liability unless there is clear criminal intent, so this article will only cover civil wrongs.
A business can sue an online reviewer either under the tort of defamation, or under the Defamation Act. Under the tort of defamation, written words (online reviews) can constitute libel. Oral reviews (videos) can also constitute slander.
When will a statement be considered defamatory?
Online reviews may constitute libel if they fulfil these three elements:
- The statement must be false and defamatory
Generally, a statement will be defamatory if it lowers the businesses’ reputation and causes the business to be ridiculed by the public.
This means that if your negative review consists of purely factual events, this will be a defence to defamation. For example, if you received uncooked fish at a restaurant, and you review the restaurant saying that you received uncooked fish – that is not defamatory.
Having said that, most online reviews invariably will contain some opinions and comments over and above purely factual events. Generally, so long as your opinions are fair, unbiased and based on true facts, you would not be liable.
If you however publish an online review accusing the business owner of theft or fraud and this is untrue, such a post would be defamatory.
- The statement in question must refer to the victim by name or picture
This requirement will most likely be easily satisfied in the context of online reviews since most users will submit their reviews to a specific restaurant in a review app, or on google reviews.
It is trickier if you published a generic post about a negative experience without revealing the name of the business. In this case, if there is no apparent clue that allows the victim to unmistakably be identified, it will unlikely constitute defamation.
However, if in your post, you allude to several aspects of the business making it unmistakably clear that you are talking about them, it can amount to defamation.
At the end of the day, whether reference has been made to the victim is a question of fact. In most cases, a name or photograph would likely be posted, making it clear that reference was made to the victim.
- The statement in question must be published or communicated to a third party
This factor is easily satisfied for online reviews, and important because the audience size of the review will go towards the quantification of damages for the business if you are found to have defamed the business.
Suggestions and Guidelines to posting online reviews
We have all been compelled by an exceptionally bad experience to post a scathing review about the disappointment we have suffered. But in order to stay out of legal trouble, here are some practical tips the next time you wish to post a helpful review on the negative experience you had:
- Keep to facts
- Don’t insult the character of any employees
- Opinions are fine, but keep them fair, reasonable and unbiased
- Avoid personal attacks
Have any questions?
If you have any questions about winding up your business, you can get a Quick Consult with Lau Kah Hee or other lawyers. With Quick Consult, from a transparent, flat fee from $49, a lawyer will call you on the phone within 1-2 days to give you legal advice.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.