Written by Connor Jonsson
Leaving false and malicious negative online reviews can make a reviewer liable for defamation, as is illustrated by this recent case. Here, a family lumber business was recently awarded $90,000 in damages after successfully claiming defamation against a disgruntled customer. In Premier Finance Ltd. v Ginther, 2022 BCSC 1461 an unhappy customer, Mr. Ginther, posted negative reviews of the lumber company on Google and Yelp after experiencing what he claimed to be poor customer service. The plaintiff, Longhouse Specialty Forest Products, owned by Brian and Moila Jenkins, sued for $675,000 claiming that Mr. Ginther’s reviews damaged the company’s reputation and caused it financial losses. At trial, the BC Supreme Court found that Mr. Ginther’s reviews were defamatory as the plaintiffs met the burden of proof in establishing defamation and the defendant could offer no reasonable defense. Finding the comments both untrue and malicious, the court awarded the plaintiffs both general and aggravated damages.
In 2015, Mr. Ginther was building a home and placed an order for cedar siding and hemlock soffits from the plaintiffs. He put down a $7,500 deposit to “get things rolling” and emailed Mr. Jenkins saying that he wanted the soffits delivered around the middle of the month and requested some cedar samples to determine the best colour to move ahead with. Upon delivery, Mr. Ginther was very unhappy with the quality of the stain on the soffits. Longhouse retrieved them, re-stained them, and re-delivered them and, although Mr. Ginther was still dissatisfied, he accepted delivery. Soon after, Mr. Ginther saw the charge from Longhouse on his credit card statement, which included both the hemlock soffits and the cedar siding. He contacted the plaintiffs and said he had not ordered the cedar siding and demanded the charges be reversed. “Matters deteriorated from there”, the judge wrote. “The two men had a heated text exchange, which quickly escalated to crude insults. Each gave as good as he got.” The plaintiffs attempted to deliver the cedar siding to Mr. Ginther but he refused to accept and the lumber was returned to Longhouse.
Mr. Ginther posted the Google review 16 months later and the Yelp review a few months after that. In the reviews he warned others about Longhouse, stating that they had a “poor product, poor customer service, late delivery” and that Brian Jenkins “cheats there [sic] customers on initial order, adds a fake order and then makes up a series fake invoices to cover his lie.” He added that the company was “fraudulent, cheating, and deceitful” and that they “added a further $7,000 onto our bill for a cedar product we had not looked at or talked about”. At trial, Mr. Ginther’s primary defense was that everything he said in the reviews was true. The judge disagreed, finding that his claims were not supported by the evidence and that he was not a credible witness. In determining his lack of credibility, the court stated that Mr. Ginther claimed that he had not received any of the invoice attachments which the plaintiffs claimed accompanied their emails, yet in his responses to the plaintiffs he specifically referenced information that was only found in those attachments. The judge found that “the only evidence supporting Mr. Ginther’s allegations of fraud is his own” and that he had “not proved that the plaintiffs defrauded, scammed or deceived him by charging him for cedar siding they knew he had not ordered”. Looking at the correspondence between both parties, the court noted, “These facts do not prove that Mr. and Ms. Jenkins intended to and did charge Mr. Ginther $6,902 for cedar siding they knew he had not ordered” and therefore the claims of fraud by Mr. Ginther were untrue.
In determining the quantum of damages, the court noted that “general damages compensate an individual plaintiff for personal distress and to vindicate their reputation” and actual loss does not have to be established. The court noted the serious allegations, which included deceit and fraud were aimed at “undermining the plaintiff’s reputations as honest business people” and no doubt caused the plaintiff’s much distress. However, the judge awarded only $60,000 in personal damages, despite the plaintiffs seeking $250,000, noting that there was no evidence that the reviews were taken seriously by the larger public. The judge also stated, “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.” In assessing corporate damages, the judge noted that there was no clear correlation between the reviews posted by Mr. Ginther and the decline in revenue experienced by Longhouse and that, on this basis, the company was entitled to $20,000. The trial judge also awarded $10,000 in aggravated damages, noting that the only reasonable explanation for Mr. Ginther’s decision to post the “more detailed and damaging Yelp review two months after the Google review was that he wanted to do more to damage the plaintiffs’ business”. This conduct, the court stated, constituted malice and attracted an award of aggravated damages.
This case serves as an important reminder that the internet is not a consequence-free space for people that post false statements. If statements posted online are untrue and malicious, delivered with an intent to deliberately harm a company’s business, the poster is opening themselves up to being sued and may end up liable for damages. Anyone who wishes to publicly post comments about a company online should be sure to choose their words carefully and, above all, be honest about their interactions so as not to attract claims of defamation.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 16.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 17.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 25.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 27.
 Premier Finance, ibid at paras 8 and 9.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 38.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 31.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 42.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 46.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 49.
 Premier Finance, ibid at para 60.,
The views and opinions expressed in the blogs and case reporter are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Desautels Centre for Private Enterprise and the Law, the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.