Online reviews and comments by customers are now a highly effective way to generate new business across all sectors. But the flip side of this is the damage that negative reviews can do – particularly to a fledgling enterprise. There are however explicit legal remedies you can use to deal with negative online content.
If you are concerned about damaging online reviews call us on 44 (0) 203 670 5540. We’ll discuss the ways we might be able to get the offending content removed or otherwise minimise the harm the online material is doing to your business. The 2021 High Court case of Summerfield Browne v Waymouth demonstrates precisely the powers the courts have to award damages in cases where untrue or defamatory online comments have hurt a business.
Summerfield Browne is a firm of solicitors. It agreed to provide legal advice for a fixed fee to a Mr. Waymouth. Mr. Waymouth was ultimately unhappy with the advice and proceeded to post a lengthy review of the firm on the well-known Trustpilot website. His comments included the following words:
“A total waste of money.. another scam solicitor…”
Summerfield Brown claimed the review was defamatory and sought damages. Mr. Waymouth defended his comment on three grounds – all of which were summarily dismissed by the court as follows:
Summerfield Brown provided a witness statement that showed their online enquiries had dipped significantly in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Waymouth posting the comment. Although the court did not award special damages (a penalty for each day’s lost business attributable to the online review) because the law firm had not produced concrete evidence for the amount they claimed, nevertheless the judge did make the following orders in its favour:
Mr. Waymouth has paid dearly for his online post. The case received significant publicity in the media and is likely to act as some kind of deterrent to individuals who seek to publish unwarranted and defamatory comments about a professional service they have received.
Like the Facebook case we’ve written about previously, the Summerfield Browne case is a clear illustration of the powers available to the courts to deal with the growing issue of defamatory online reviews.
These cases should provide businesses with the reassurance that they don’t just have to tolerate the illegal postings of a disgruntled customer or business partner. At the same time it’s important to remember that cases like Summerfield Browne do not represent a brake on free speech That is to say the courts won’t step in to remove or penalise legitimate comments about a business that are actually true. It’s for this reason that it’s crucial to get specialist advice before tackling comments about your business that you disagree with.
It’s fair to say that there are a number of steps we can usually take on behalf of clients to help manage their online reputation that help avoid the risk and expense of a High Court hearing. While it’s clear that Summerfield Brown had little choice about going to court (The judgment states “The Defendant, it is fair to say, has not engaged with the application in any meaningful way”), in many cases we’ve found that it’s possible, working constructively with the person who has posted objectionable material and the relevant website and service providers to remove material that a business objects to.
It’s useful to note too that in many defamation cases we can use the mechanism of what’s known as a ‘disposal hearing’ to obtain judgment without a full hearing.
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