A disgruntled customer who was found to have defamed a BC wood products company in his Google and Yelp reviews has been ordered by a judge to pay $90,000 in damages.
Tyler Ginther posted the online reviews about Longhouse Specialty Forest Products, claiming that the company was fraudulent and deceitful.
In November 2015, Ginther had met a sales representative from the company who was doing cold calls in the White Rock area.
Ginther, who had built several homes over the years, was constructing a house and the two men discussed his plans and the products of the Parksville company, which specializes in custom cut and stained cedar, fir and hemlock building supplies.
Ginther claimed in subsequent online reviews that the company defrauded, scammed or deceived him by charging him for cedar siding they knew he had not ordered. He argued at trial that what he had said was true.
But in a ruling on the case, BC Supreme Court Justice Nitya Iyer found that Ginther was not a credible witness and he had not proven the allegations.
“I conclude that the defendant defamed the plaintiffs in his Google and Yelp reviews,” said the judge.
Longhouse, a family business, claimed that Ginther had damaged their reputation and caused them economic loss, and that he had acted with malice. They sought general, aggravated and punitive damages totaling $675,000, as well as special costs.
But the judge said the amount for general damages being sought, $125,000 each for Brian and Moila Jenkins, the two named principals of the company, was excessive because there was no evidence that anyone who knew them and read the reviews believed Ginther’s accusations.
“The ubiquity of Internet reviews is now a fact of business life. While negative reviews may deter potential customers, a range of reviews is common, and a reasonable reader will exercise judgment in assessing them.”
The judge awarded the Jenkins plaintiffs a total of $60,000 in general damages and another $20,000 in general damages for the company itself.
“I find that Mr. Ginther acted with malice when he posted the Yelp review,” said the judge. “As noted, he admitted that his intention was to harm the plaintiffs’ business.”
The judge awarded the Jenkins $5,000 each for the aggravated damages, but declined to award punitive damages or special costs.
Bernard Lau, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an email that his clients were “very pleased” with the outcome and are grateful for the courts in vindicating their names and reputations.
“They can finally breathe a sigh of relief and put this matter behind them,” Lau said in the statement. “It was a very difficult time for them when the posts came out, particularly as they come from a close-knit community in Parksville and the false allegations about them and their integrity put them through a lot of unnecessary stress and impacted their business and personal lives greatly.”
Lau said he hopes the case serves as a reminder that posting comments online, even in the context of an “innocuous” Google review, has real-world consequences and possibly even significant financial ramifications.
Greg Allen, a Vancouver defamation lawyer, said that if you want to review a business on Google or Yelp, you should be mindful to keep your language measured and careful.
“The issue in this case is that the defendant took the position at trial that everything he said was true but he just wasn’t believed by the trial judge,” he said.
“So in that circumstance where you make allegations that are sort of incendiary in nature, you run the risk of having the business owner pursue you in defamation, and your main defense in that circumstance is that what you said is true.”
Allen said $90,000 in damages is not one of the larger awards for defamation in general, but in the particulars of the case it seems to be at the higher end of the range.
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