Words are defamatory if they lower a person’s reputation in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally or expose a person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. If the literal meaning is defamatory, that is enough to establish a claim. Defamation are words put into writing, while slander is words spoken that lower a person’s reputation in society or expose a person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.
Defendant Ginther posted 2 reviews online with Google and Yelp making allegations about a company and its owners specifically. As a consequence of those posted reviews, any person searching the internet to find the website will have either or both of these reviews show up. However, even if something is defamatory or slanderous, what is said or spoken can be defended if it is a “fair comment”. That means it is true or that the writer or speaker had reason to believe it was true.
Why was the company entitled to compensation in this situation?
In this case, there was a misunderstanding between a customer and a company and there then arose a chest bumping, a heated argument between the parties, and each side dug into their position. No resolution came from the argument and the Defendant, despite evidence to the contrary, went online and wrote scathing reviews alleging some pretty serious things like fraud and knowingly overcharging a credit card as well as poor customer service and delays.
Defendant Ginther knew the Company and its owners did not do what he was mischaracterizing and the Court held there was no evidence that there was any fraud or overcharging on a visa and that there were no late deliveries. Defendant Ginther had doubled down on his allegations against the Company and its owners because he was angry and insulted. However, ultimately, his reviews were not true, not fair comments and so they were not a defense to the defamation he had written on the internet reviews.
If defamation (or slander) causes a damaged reputation or economic loss, that has value. As a result, the company and its owners suffered harm to their reputation and likely lost revenue, although this is difficult to prove because people don’t tell you when they are not giving you business due to negative online reviews. The owners, a couple, were awarded $30,000 each for damage to reputation, and the company was awarded $20,000 for the same and potential lost revenue. In addition, because Defendant Ginther made the reviews on purpose with malice and the intent to create harm, the owners were awarded a further $5,000 each as aggravated damages. The judge declined to award punitive damages.
Aggravated damages are for when harm is done that is done willfully and so extra damages are added compensation to reflect that. Punitive damages are extra damages to punish a person for their conduct, which the judge did not award here.
When people are posting reviews of companies or products online, what do they need to be careful of?
Just because the Defendant, in this case, did not have punitive damages awarded against him does not mean this is not a cautionary tale or warning for others. You simply cannot write things about another person that would harm their reputation or expose them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule online (or in the paper or even say them to others) if it isn’t a true or fair comment. If you do, you attract the likelihood of an allegation of slander or defamation and could be held to account – not just for the person’s losses but also for their damage to reputation.
Think twice before writing a scathing review if you are unhappy with a service or product and think about if it is really true or if you are just blowing off steam because you are mad or unhappy about something. It could just cost you $90,000.