How badly can a negative, and wholly inaccurate, Google review affect your reputation and business?
Can the law properly protect your reputation in the age of anonymous, online publication?
These very contemporary questions was the subject of Cheng v Lok 1 , a recent defamation action brought by Adelaide barrister Gordon Cheng (in an unaccustomed role of being, rather than representing, ‘the plaintiff’) against Isabel Lok (‘the defendant’) in the Supreme Court of South Australia.
Barrister successfully sues client pretender for defamation
Ultimately, Mr. Cheng was successful in his suit. He alleged that multiple negative Google reviews posted online by Ms. Lok, criticising Mr. Cheng’s legal business were erroneous and defamatory, economically damaging his business while harming his reputation and mental health.
Online defamation provides challenges for the courts
Cheng v Lok revolves around poignant issues for defamation law in Australia. Defamation, a civil action or ‘tort’ that protects an individual’s reputation, has faced salient challenges in updating for the digital age. Tailoring aspects of defamation to suit the era of internet publication has been described as ‘trying to fit a square archaic peg into the hexagonal hole of modernity’
Issues in contemporary Australian defamation law, including:
- the ease at which individuals can publish defamatory material online;
- the legal obligations of online intermediaries who display said materials;
- and issues regarding the anonymity of online publishers (See Kabbabe v Google LLC  HCA 126
remain live in the Australian courts.
Respected barrister is defamed in Google reviews
In Cheng v Lok, Mr. Cheng was a well-respected barrister who practised in Adelaide. In late 2018 and early 2019, Mr. Cheng became aware of an exodus of clients from his practice. Within a few months, 80% of Mr. Cheng’s clients had left his practice to retain new legal representation. Only when a client alerted Mr. Cheng to a review of his legal practice on the website Google My Business did Cheng gain clarity.
The review was written by Isabel Lok, and read:
“Stay clear of this place! Gordon [Cheng] brings shame to all lawyers and is infamous for his lack of professionalism amongst the law society in Adelaide. He is only concerned about how to get most of your money…”
1 Cheng v Lok  SASC 14.
3 Kim Gould, “Hyperlinking and defamatory publication: a question of ‘trying to fit a square archaic peg into the
hexagonal hole of modernity’?” (2012) 36 Aust Bar Rev 137.
Mr. Cheng had never met Isabel Lok. He had never contacted her, nor represented her as a lawyer.
Barrister lodges complaints with Google over untrue reviews
Over the coming months, despite lodging a complaint with Google and asking the defendant to refrain from posting reviews, Lok continued to post negative Google reviews of Mr. Cheng’s legal practice. She repeatedly altered her screen name in the process.
In the space of two months, more than 1500 people had viewed Ms. Lok’s erroneous reviews on Google Business. Mr. Cheng’s practice lost money, and he suffered mental distress and anxiety, resulting in a diagnosis of depression in April 2019.
Mr. Cheng successfully sued Ms. Lok for defamation
Subsequently, Mr. Cheng successfully sued Ms. Lok for defamation in Supreme Court of South Australia. Upon satisfying the requirements of an action in defamation, the court was tasked with determining the scope of compensation (or ‘damages’) that Lok was to pay Mr. Cheng. This compensation is in order to remedy the damage caused by her publications.
In actions for defamation, compensatory damages must relate to the harm or injury suffered by the plaintiff, both to their reputation and as a direct result of the publication. Compensation in defamation is not designed to punish the defamer, but rather vindicate the plaintiff’s reputation against baseless allegations.
Substantial damages awarded for online defamation
In total, the Court awarded Mr. Cheng a total of $750,000 in compensatory damages. The court assessed damages for economic losses, past and future, to Mr. Cheng’s legal practice at $400,000. As well it valued the loss of goodwill towards Mr. Cheng’s business at $150,000.
In addition, the Court awarded $100,000 in ‘general’ damages, as a signal of public vindication of Mr. Cheng’s reputation. These damages also compensated Mr. Cheng for his mental distress. However, due to issues of evidence, the Court was unable to conclude that Mr. Cheng’s depression was directly and predominantly caused by Ms. Lok’s Google reviews, and therefore could not compensate for this in full.
Further, the Court chose to award ‘aggravated damages’ totalling $100,000. In defamation actions, aggravated damages are awarded in response to conduct of the defendant that “aggravates” the plaintiff’s injuries. In Cheng v Lok, the factors the Court considered relevant when awarding aggravated damages were:
- that Ms. Lok had never met Mr. Cheng;
- that she attempted to evade Mr. Cheng’s requests to stop posting and defiantly continued to publish negative reviews;
- and that she never apologised to Mr. Cheng or made any offer of compensation.
If you believe that you or your business have been defamed online by anyone, please contact O’Brien Criminal and Civil Solicitors to speak to one of our defamation lawyers.
Keywords: defamation; civil action; defamation compensation; defamation damages; aggravated damages;
internet publication; Google review; online review; Cheng v Lok; Supreme Court of South Australia