Customer reviews are both a blessing and a curse to a business. Whilst a series of good reviews can truly elevate your business, one negative review can have an immediate and detrimental impact on reputation. If it is a genuine reflection of a bad experience for the customer, whilst harmful to the business, it should at least be reconcilable.
However, what can be very difficult for a business is when it is subjected to an entirely unjustified or malicious review. These reviews may be left by customers or, in some instances they may be left with those harbouring a grudge for another reason such as a commercial dispute. The rise of review platforms and social media has given complainants more channels through which to ensure that a review reaches a wide audience quickly and ‘unchecked’.
What can be done about unjustified negative reviews?
We are increasingly asked by clients what action can be taken in relation to unjustified negative reviews placed on review sites or on social media.
As reported in the media, the recent case of Summerfield Browne Limited v Waymouth is a timely reminder that a negative review can be actionable where its content cannot be justified and is detrimental.
The case related to a disgruntled client, Mr Waymouth, of a solicitors firm, Summerfield Browne Limited. In a Trustpilot review Mr Waymouth had referred to Summerfield Browne as “a total waste of money” and a “scam solicitor”. Despite his apparent grievance Mr Waymouth had failed to engage with the Summerfield Browne complaints policy and eventually Summerfield Browne Limited commenced defamation proceedings against him. Mr Waymouth did not withdraw his statement and continued to assert similar statements in his correspondence with the court. Despite seeking to rely on the defences of ‘honest opinion’, that the publication was in the ‘public interest’ and that the statement was ‘true’, Mr Waymouth was found not to have justified his reliance on any of those defences. There is no doubt that Mr Waymouth’s review was considered very harmful, “scam” being accepted as meaning that Summerfield Browne was dishonest and fraudulent. Statements of this nature cannot be made and asserted as opinion, they must be proved as a matter of fact. Despite being given the opportunity, even before the proceedings began, Mr Waymouth was unable to justify the statement.
The case also highlights that businesses can satisfy the requirement to demonstrate that they have suffered ‘serious harm’. Summerfield Browne Limited gave evidence that it relied upon the internet for a large proportion of its telephone enquiries which were then converted into instructions for paid work. The evidence provided showed that there was a marked downturn in weekly enquiries, from 50-60 to 30-40, for approximately five weeks following the posting of the review on the Trust Pilot website.
Mr Waymouth was eventually ordered to pay £25,000 in damages, as well as being ordered to remove the review and not to publish the defamatory allegations again.
Reviews are ultimately opinions and a genuine opinion will not be found to be defamatory. However, this recent case reminds us that making reckless and unjustified statements of fact and citing them as opinions does not automatically provide a defence and can ultimately be costly.
If you believe that your business has been subjected to a defamatory review or statement then it is important to act quickly, the longer it remains ‘live’ the more negative impact it may have. You should preserve evidence of the offending publication, for example by taking a screenshot, and then consider whether it is within your control to remove it and/or whether it should be reported, for example through the platform’s own complaints procedures. Not every negative review will be defamatory so it is worth taking early advice to determine that, as a business’ overall approach may then differ.