A reward of £50,000 in damages made to a US law firm that was the target of online malicious reviews has set a welcome precedent for hospitality businesses, says Peter Ducker, chief executive of the Institute of Hospitality
What can you do when you read a negative online review of your business that you know is fake or malicious? Your options are limited. You can ask to have the review removed, but anyone who has tried this will tell you it is no easy task. Receiving prompt and effective co-operation from faceless global organisations is not common. Even if you are successful, some damage to business will almost certainly have already occurred. Another option is to try and ignore the review completely and hope that the positive reviews outweigh the negative ones.
A third option is to take legal action against the individual responsible for posting the defamatory and false review. To date, successful outcomes in this area have been extremely rare, but now a landmark ruling in London's High Court will set a precedent for future cases. The High Court awarded £50,000 damages to a US law firm, finding that a false posting on the firm's Google Maps profile was defamatory (Bussey Law Firm PC and another v Page  EWHC 563 (QB), 6 March 2015).
The offending post appeared as follows: "A Google User received 10 months ago. Overall poor to fair. Scumbag Tim Bussey, pays for false reviews, loses 80% of his cases. Not a happy camper. 3 out of 3 found this review helpful."
There was no suggestion that these allegations were true. The defendant Jason ‘Jay' Page is a young man in his 20s who lives with his parents in Telford. The issue in the case was whether the claimants (Tim Bussey and his law firm) could prove that Page was responsible for the posting. Page's defence that his account had been hacked was not accepted by the judge.
Page had reportedly advertised on Twitter as being willing to post ‘feedback' or ‘testimonial' for $5 via the Fiverr.com website. This would, the judge noted, provide a possible motive for his targeting the law firm, of which he had no personal knowledge.
The case also highlights the growing and worrying evidence that some companies are resorting to paying for reviews, whether to enhance their own reputations, or to disparage their competitors.
At least now hospitality operators that find themselves in a similar position have a successful case to refer to. The hope must be that this case will make those tempted to post false or malicious reviews think twice in the future.