Small business owners have been urged to keep an eye on their online reviews, after a high-profile libel suit between Gold Coast surgeons resulted in a $450,000 payout.
On Thursday, Federal Court Judge Jayne Jagot ruled that plastic surgeon Dr. Cesidio Colagrande was “traumatized” by a fake online review, posted by business competitor Dr Min Sik Kim and his wife, Anna Min.
Judge Jagot found the December 2018 exam was designed to mimic a former patient of Dr. Colagrande, who had previously falsely accused him of sexual assault.
“After what he did to me, I can’t believe he’s still practicing,” the online post said, referring to a news story about Dr. Colagrande’s 2017 sentencing.
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However, the conviction was overturned on appeal a year later and the prosecution dropped its charges.
In writing the bogus review, Judge Jagot found the respondents “knew that Dr. Colagrande’s conviction had been overturned and calculated the best way to cause the most harm to Dr. Colagrande by tricking readers into believing that the sexual assault had taken place”.
The respondents were ordered to pay aggravated damages of $420,000 and special damages of $31,511, plus costs and interest.
The case highlights how online reviews can act as a “double edged sword” for small businesses, said Hamish McNair, commercial litigator and defamation expert at Hall & Wilcox.
Talk to SmartCompany, McNair outlined some key ways small businesses can respond to fake online reviews and what steps they can take if false and defamatory claims remain on the internet.
Stay up to date with online reviews
Given the ability of online reviews to make or break a business’ online reputation, McNair said small businesses should always keep a close eye on review platforms like Google or Yelp.
“The best companies that manage their reputation in this context are those that respond to reviews” whether positive or negative, he says.
“IIf there is a greater investment of time in tracking and responding to reviews, it shows that the company is taking things seriously and looking to improve services to maintain a standard.
“Second, it allows companies to cut things off at an early stage before they turn into something worse.”
This way, small businesses can potentially resolve negative reviews and reverse a customer’s experience, instead of letting a bad rating linger online unchecked.
This includes fake reviews, which can cause significant reputational damage if left online. Small businesses may choose to consider more extensive legal interventions at this stage, where a simple registration may have solved the problem.
Contact aggrieved reviewers
Once a business identifies a negative or fake review, McNair said the next best step is to identify who posted it, even if reaching out seems difficult.
“If you can identify who it is, I think the most appropriate approach is to contact them directly as they can really resolve the issue,” he said.
“And I think that’s a tough step to take because most people want to avoid conflict. If someone has said something negative about you, in this context, they are obviously not very happy with the service.
“It’s a tough conversation to have, but one that will save you time and money in the long run.”
Contact the review platform
Companies like Google and Yelp have options for businesses that feel they have been unfairly slandered online and often eliminate reviews containing offensive language directed at small businesses.
Even so, McNair said it can be difficult to claim a review is false or defamatory.
Another method small businesses can use to mitigate the impact of a fake review is to encourage customers with positive experiences to share their locations online.
It’s a “the act of mitigating the harm he has caused,” McNair said.
“But unfortunately, it is a very frustrating process because there is no quick and easy solution.”
Businesses that are very concerned about a fake review and have the evidence and funding to challenge it may consider hiring a law firm to contact the review platform directly with a takedown request.
Consider initial legal avenues and final removal attempts
If communication with a platform fails and the reviewer remains anonymous, small businesses may consider preliminary discovery – a lawsuit. “on the basis that you have a prima facie cause of action for defamation or other claim, you simply do not know who the appropriate defendant is”.
The next step is to issue a notice of concern to whoever posted the fake review, offering them another chance to apologize, retract and delete their post.
“In our experience, I would say that around 40% or 50% of defamation claims are resolved after a Notice of Concern is posted,” McNair said.
The process of pursuing libel claims through to judgment is expensive and time-consuming, McNair says, while the bogus review remains online.
But identifying the reviewer and addressing their concerns before taking further action can save companies legal costs, which are likely to outweigh the expense of preliminary discovery and notice of concerns.
“At the end of the day, these small businesses don’t necessarily have the resources to keep fighting,” McNair adds.
Bringing a defamation action
The last step is, of course, to take action for defamation.
Small businesses with less than 10 employees are classified as “Excluded Companies” under state and federal laws, meaning they can also sue for defamation as an entity, rather than as an individual.
But “there would be only 5 or 10% of these complaints which go until the judgment,” McNair explains.
“This is truly an area where settlement, the negotiation of an agreed outcome, is far preferable to suing for libel,” he said.
A defamation action can harm the day-to-day operations of a business and comes with a significant cost.
Of course, it’s also possible that the person your company accuses of defamation has a valid legal defense: perhaps they can prove that the allegations were substantially true or that they were an honest opinion rather than a statement. fact.
“You really have to weigh the pros and cons.” McNair said.
All in all, the best advice is to conduct your business legally and honestly, so as to reduce the likelihood of bad reviews.
And when fake reviews pop up, it may be in your best interest to independently research a fair result before initiating an expensive defamation suit.