Several would-be customers of a skincare clinic received lawyer letters threatening them with legal proceedings over negative online reviews.
It was reported that they had visited the company after seeing an advertisement on its website offering a free trial. However, when they arrived at the Robinson Road clinic, they were told that this free trial would only apply after signing up for a package.
The patrons left disappointed and gave a one-star review on Yelp, a social networking site that allows users to post reviews and rate businesses.
Shortly, these would be customers (whom did not know each other) received letters of demand: to remove the reviews or face legal proceedings.
Some of the letters were sent by a law firm, however, some of these letters were sent by the skincare clinic themselves.
Can a business sue for bad reviews?
If you have been the victim of allegations and comments that hurt your business, you may be entitled to sue for defamation. But how do you identify a defamatory statement?
Defamation occurs when there is publication to a third party words containing untrue statements which injure the reputation of an innocent party, such as to expose the victim to hatred, contempt or ridicule.
For example; If statements which accuse a business of theft, causing harm, cheating or any other matter that would lower the victim’s standing in society, then these statements may be construed as defamatory.
For a statement to be defamatory, the statement must also refer to the victim.
In the present case, it would have been relatively easy to establish this link. The 1 star review was made on Yelp, a public social networking website that lets users post reviews and rate businesses. For the review to be made, the business had to be identified clearly and explicitly.
The extent of damages that a potential defendant may be liable for, will depend on the extent of publication of the defamatory statement. For example, if the defamatory statement was published to a few friends, the damage caused will be less. However if the statements were published on a webpage with thousands of visitors, the damage to reputation will be far higher.
Of course, in law, there are defences to defamation and the most common one would be justification or truth.
If the statements made were true, this is a complete defence and one will not be liable for any damages. Once the statements have been proven to be defamatory, the burden would then be on the defendant to show prove that the statements are true.
There are also other defences that may be available such as fair comment. A fair comment is an opinion based on true facts, and must relate to a matter of public interest, or qualified privilege. These are legal defences which one should seek a qualified legal professional for advice on.
Should businesses sue?
Civil claims in Court are generally public in nature, which means that a claim in defamation may result in even more publicity on the matter. This may not always be in the best interests of the business.
In an earlier interview, IRB lawyer Jeremy Cheong spoke about how unnecessary litigation is discouraged (https://irblaw.com.sg/2018/12/13/victim-of-food-poisoning/) because more often than not, internet complaints should be a matter for PR and marketing rather than law.
Speak to a trusted legal advisor before rushing to take action.