Anonymous online review still carries defamatory imputations, court finds

24 March 2023

Among a growing number of defamation cases involving anonymous online reviews, a former student has been found to have defamed a surgeon in a Google review posted under a pseudonym.

In issue

  • In the recent case of Musicki v De Tonnerre [2023] FCA 222, the Federal Court of Australia found in favour of a Melbourne vascular and endovascular surgeon who brought an action in defamation against her former student who authored a defamatory Google review under a pseudonym.
  • The review was posted under the pseudonym 'Dave Cross' and read, 'terrible experience, was super keen to get me onto the table but then impossible to get a hold of for follow up, vague about incurred expenses, ended up with a massive bill. had no issues with the surgery but overall negative experience and no followup [sic].'
  • Upon discovering the review, the applicant repeatedly requested that Google either remove the statement or provide her with the identifying details of the author. The applicant was eventually successful in preliminary discovery proceedings against Google which led to the production of documents revealing the author’s email address and phone number.
  • On receipt of the documents from Google, the applicant recognised the author’s details as belonging to a former medical student that she had supervised years earlier. On 4 March 2022, the applicant sent a Concerns Notice to the former student, and the Google review was removed on 1 April 2022. The applicant then issued defamation proceedings against her former student.

The decision

After no defence was filed by the respondent, the Court entered default judgment against the respondent and judgment was awarded in favour of the applicant. The Court held that the Google review was defamatory of the applicant and gave rise to imputations, including that the applicant was a negligent surgeon and that she provided a negative customer experience for 'Dave Cross'.

Even though the review was published under a pseudonym, the Court found that the applicant had established a cause of action in defamation and that the respondent was responsible for publishing the Google review. The Court held that the applicant had suffered damage to her reputation, particularly because of the location of the publication alongside other reviews of her performance of medical services.

The applicant was entitled to damages to compensate her for hurt feelings, damage to reputation, and to vindicate reputation.

Implications for you

This matter highlights the growing number of actions in defamation involving statements made anonymously online, particularly in circumstances where a claimant relies on online reviews and statements to obtain business and glean a positive reputation.

This is an important reminder that actions in defamation can be brought, and won, when the statement in issue is published anonymously or under a pseudonym.

Musicki v de Tonnerre [2023] FCA 222

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