03 March 2020

Defamed by Bogus Google Business Review – and the $750k Damages Bill

In Cheng v Lok [2020] SASC 14, the Supreme Court of South Australia awarded a lawyer $750,000 in damages against a woman who gave his firm a poor review on Google.

Cheng is an Australian lawyer. A significant proportion of his clients are members of the Chinese community, both domestically and abroad. Cheng’s client base is significantly dependent upon referral and word of mouth from other clients.

In February 2019, Cheng received a telephone call from a former client advising him of a review that had been left about his firm on the Google My Business website. It was posted by Lok, and warned people to stay clear of Mr Cheng’s firm, stated that Cheng lacked professionalism, provided misleading advice and would convince his clients to take a case to Court even though their case was unmeritorious. Cheng had never met Lok, had never acted for her nor had he ever had contact with her.

After receiving complaints from Cheng, Google deleted the review on 30 April 2019. When Lok’s initial review was deleted, Lok continued to post reviews using her father’s name and a pseudonym. According to analytics captured by Google, 887 people had viewed the defamatory review in April 2019 and 727 in May 2019 and there was nothing to suggest that a similar number of people had not read the posts each month since their initial publication in October 2018.

Ultimately, damages were assessed as follows:

Damages for past economic loss = $300,000

Damages for future economic loss = $100,000

Damages for loss of goodwill = $150,000

In assessing general damages, the Court acknowledged the great deal of stress and anxiety Lok’s bogus reviews had caused Cheng, largely resulting from the downturn of the business which in turn forced him to law off his staff. The Court referred to Justice Blue’s judgement in Duffy v Google Inc (No 2) [2015] SASC 206, which states general damages must “be sufficient to signal the public vindication of… reputation”. The Court’s final assessment of general damages was $100,000.

The Court then considered aggravated damages. Aggravated damages are can be awarded when someone publishes a deliberately false or defamatory statement. The Court was satisfied that such an award was suitable, due to Ms Lok’s continual posting despite her original post being deleted and her failure to apologise. Aggravated damages led to an additional $100,000 being awarded.Anonymity removed – Google ordered to identify unknown reviewer

In a somewhat similar case, the Federal Court has recently ordered Google to reveal the identity of an individual who left an apparently defamatory review of a Melbourne dentist. Teeth whitening specialist Dr Matthew Kabbabe was seeking the court order so he could then sue the user, who told others to “STAY AWAY” from his practice.

The review in question, authored by a user called “CBsm 23”, is the only one containing negative comments on Dr Kabbabe’s business page. The rest of his reviews have five stars. He has been unsuccessful in getting Google to take down the review.

The order by Justice Bernard Murphy compels Google to turn over identifying information of “CBsm 23”, including any names, phone numbers, IP addresses and location metadata.

The technology giant has also been ordered to provide any other Google accounts, including full name and email addresses, which may have originated from the same IP address during the same period of time. Any information garnered from Google will then be used to sue the author of the review.

Google has long rejected attempts to remove negative reviews and has argued that defamation cases can suppress important information that would help customers avoid bad businesses and services.

It has typically only revealed a negative reviewer through a court order.

We await further updates as the matter unfolds.