Defamation in False Online Review

March 9, 2015

In a case brought by a US law firm in respect of a defamatory allegation on the firm’s Google Maps profile, it was held that the posting of a negative review by an English poster amounted to defamation deserving of substantial damages. In The Bussey Law Firm PC & Anor v Page [2015] EWHC 563 (QB), the offending post read as follows:

‘Scumbag Tim Bussey, pays for false reviews, loses 80% of his cases.

Not a happy camper’

The central issue on liability was whether Mr Page was responsible for the posting. He admitted that the posting had been made from his Google account. Mr Page’s response was to advance certain hypothetical explanations as to how an unidentified third party might have posted the allegations via his account but without his knowledge.

While Sir David Eady paid appropriate respect to the somewhat convoluted explanations from Mr Page, none of them were convincing. As it was proved that Mr Page advertised on Twitter as being willing to post ‘feedback’ or ‘testimonial’ for $5 via the web site, he faced an uphill task in backing up his explanations. This was made even more difficult because Mr Page’s Paypal records disclosed substantial dollar payments and, though he said he was never paid for any such transaction involving the claimants, there was an unexplained gap (an apparent deletion) covering the period embracing the date of the relevant posting.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Mr Page, who acted in person, wandered into the High Court in the expectation of blinding the judge with science. If so, that strategy failed spectacularly.

What might have been the one weakness in the claimant’s case was the failure to plead the jurisdiction of the English court properly. But Mr Page failed to take advantage of that; the late application to amend the pleading to the effect that the posting was actionable under the lex loci delicti as well as under English law and to rely on the presumption that the relevant foreign law (in the state of Colorado) is the same as that applying in England was not opposed. Those familiar with the law in Colorado may well be surprised by the presumption’s application.

Since damages were capped at £50,000 that was the total extent of the award, although the judge made it clear that a greater sum would otherwise have been payable.