An online war of words between a local car dealership and one of its customers raises the question of whether a negative Google review can lead to the reviewer being sued for defamation.
A patron of Richmond’s Signature Mazda dealership was threatened with a lawsuit recently after leaving negative comments on Google Review.
The customer thought he may have been upsold on a pair of brake pads so he wrote a review commenting on the dealership’s “predatory technicians and shady advisors.”
The dealership said they welcome reviews, good and bad, but this one crossed a line, adding that the customer had agreed to the job.
Defamation for online reviews?
Daniel Burnett, a media lawyer with Owen Bird, said it is possible for a person to be sued for “a defamatory review.”
However, many reviews “would fall under fair comment, which doesn’t require fairness, just honest belief based on true facts,” said Burnett.
“Many harsh reviews … are pure opinion and tend to be protected as comment, so those cases don’t usually justify litigation. Where a review makes a factually false accusation, …it can become a matter for the courts.”
Court cases around defamatory comments, he added, depend on “how serious the accusation is” and if there are facts and evidence that can prove that.
“If it comes out that there was an ulterior motive … that also makes it even more serious.”
Burnett said he can’t answer if “predatory technicians and shady advisors” would be considered harsh enough to justify litigation for defamation. However, the decision remains with the plaintiff (Signature Mazda in this case), taking into considerations factors such as the cost of litigation and the damage to their reputation.
According to Shaena Furlong, president and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, most businesses, especially those in the retail and hospitality sectors, rely heavily on reviews.
“Google reviews are often the first impression a consumer will get, even before visiting the website,” said Furlong.
Back at the Mazda dealership, the accusations continue to fly.
Francis Tan said that while he agreed to the brake pad replacement, he later spoke to the friend who sold him the vehicle who said the pads were recently tested and shouldn’t need replacing. Tan went back to the dealership to see proof of the worn brake pads but was told they couldn’t be produced.
Marko Joannou, general manager at Signature Mazda, later told the News that Tan only asked to see the pads after his car had been picked up, by which time they had been recycled, which is typical of most dealerships.
Regardless, Tan left a review saying Mazda Signature had “predatory technicians and shady advisors.”
The next day he received a phone call from the dealership to take down the review. When that didn’t happen, the dealership posted a reply to the review threatening Tan with a legal action.
“What you are doing is illegal and has consequences. You have a choice, Francis, you can either leave this horrible review up and we will pursue legal action against you and your friends to the fullest extent of the law, or you can be civil and remove the slander,” read the response, adding that Tan had until June 2 to remove the negative review.
(Because other negative reviews regarding the situation soon popped up, the dealership assumed Tan’s friends were also involved.)
On June 2, an updated reply stated that Tan’s “slander” had been forwarded to Mazda’s “legal team and further actions will be taken.”
“Our position remains that a dealership’s reputation has been hung out to dry based on hard evidence that was all about getting brake replacement covered at no cost,” said Joannou.
Joannou confirmed that the dealership has sent in all evidence and conversation to its legal department.