Online Reviews Can Still Be Defamatory, Even with Surgical Precision
Unhappy plastic surgery patient held to have defamed surgeon in web reviews
In Peterson v. Deck, Justice G.P. Weatherill of the British Columbia Supreme Court presided over a summary trial in a defamation case brought by a plastic surgeon against a patient who was dissatisfied with the result of her breast augmentation surgery. The defendant had posted comments about the surgeon’s work on both her own website and in Google Reviews, in which she suggested he had made fundamental errors in his consultation with her and the surgical work, and generally imputing that he was incompetent. She defended on the basis of justification, fair comment and qualified privilege.
Justice Weatherill first dealt with the defendant’s argument that the claim was barred by the B.C. Protection of Public Participation Act, the province’s “anti-SLAPP” legislation which is designed to ensure valid commentary on issues of public interest is not suppressed by well-resourced defendants bringing legal proceedings. He accepted the defendant’s argument that “a consumer review of a plastic surgeon’s skills is within the ambit of public interest,” citing earlier authority for the proposition that:
Online reviews of goods or services offered to members of the public… are commonplace on Google or other web sites. While much of the general public may not be interested in [such] reviews…, it is enough that some segment of the community would have a genuine interest in receiving information on the subject.
However, the claim was not sufficiently in the public interest to meet the requirements under the Act, because the claim had merit and the harm to the doctor’s interests outweighed the value of protecting the expression:
This action was not brought to stifle or frustrate the defendant’s freedom of expression or prevent her from making reviews or participating in matters of public debate. Consumer reviews, as a general principle, ought to be encouraged and there is a very real danger of a chilling effect if they are curtailed. However, such reviews should not be left unbridled. Online review platforms are not a carte blanche to say whatever one wishes without potential consequences. This case was brought to vindicate the plaintiff’s reputation as a plastic surgeon in light of the Posts.
On the main claim, the court easily found that the posts were defamatory, given that they would tend to lower the reputation of the plaintiff in the eyes of the public. Justice Weatherill found that the posts had been “published” in spite of little evidence being led on whether anyone had read the reviews; however, they had been read by the surgeon’s administrative assistant, and the defendant herself had received responses to them and stated publicly that they had “gone viral,” which the court held to be sufficient.
Moving on to defences, Weatherill J. held that justification/truth was not available to the defendant, since the evidence indicated that she had made factual statements that were demonstrably false, regarding what had been discussed with her by the surgeon and what had taken place during the surgery. Nor was fair comment available, since the subjective opinions the defendant expressed in the posts were based on untrue facts. The court held for the plaintiff on liability.
As to damages, Weatherill J. noted that “the defendant published the Posts using the internet, a medium with tremendous power to harm a person’s reputation by spreading falsehoods far and wide,” and imposed damages of $30,000.00. He also imposed a mandatory injunction requiring the defendant to take down the posts and not place them anywhere else.