Google reviews and websites such as RateMD and Whitecoat make it very easy for patients or any person to damage your or your business’ reputation and credibility online.

There are a few steps a doctor can take if you receive a damaging online review. For example:

  • You can ask the patient commenting to remove the online comment.
  • You can ask the website administrator to remove the online comment. You can also flag the comment on the site as inappropriate.

However, if the actions taken bring no joy, another option is to institute defamation proceedings. But taking defamation action against someone for hurting your reputation is a big step. Before you take this step, you should seek legal advice to understand what is involved, and the benefits and risks. 

Here are five things to know if you are considering defamation action when you receive a negative online review.

1.       What would be deemed a defamatory online review?

An online review would be defamatory if the review:

  • is of and concerning the doctor or business;
  • was published to at least one other person (i.e. not including the defamed doctor or business);
  • injures the reputation of the doctor or business in the eyes of the public (i.e. is disparaging, is likely to cause others to shun and avoid, or is likely to subject to hatred, ridicule or contempt); and
  • there is no defence to excuse the defamatory publication (such as a truth or honest opinion defence).

Each case will be different and will depend on the facts.

2.       Where is the review posted?

Has the reviewer breached the review website’s or platform’s guidelines for acceptable content? Content that is inappropriate, abusive, vulgar or discriminatory will usually be taken down by the internet host after being notified as to its existence.

3.       Can you take legal action against the reviewer?

Under Australian defamation legislation, only an individual and small business (those with fewer than 10 employees) can bring an action for defamation. However, larger businesses may have other legal avenues to pursue, such as the law relating to misleading and deceptive conduct.

There is also a limitation period of one year within which to bring an action for defamation. In limited circumstances, the limitation period can be extended to three years.

4.       Can you identify the author of the review?

If you can identify the actual author of a defamatory review, you can sue that person. However, more often, the author of the review is anonymous or has used a pseudonym instead of their real name. It is not a straightforward matter to make the review website or platform owner liable as a publisher of a defamatory post. If the website is based overseas, there can also be complex jurisdictional issues.

It is possible to obtain a court order forcing the review website or platform owner to disclose the identity of the individual who posted the review. However, this can be an expensive and time-consuming process, because the application for the court order is likely to be contested.

5.       How damaging is the review really?

There is a risk that by launching an action in defamation, you bring even more attention to the negative review, particularly if there is media coverage (which there usually is when a doctor sues a patient). In other words, suing for defamation might actually increase the damage caused by the review.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general overview and guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances or situation. Please don't hestitate to contact us on 9321 0522.