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Restaurant threatens to sue over one-star review

An Australian restaurant is threatening to sue a customer for defamation after she claimed in an online review that the food was “inedible”, “greasy” and “limp”.

The incident was reported in‘s weekly legal column Sisters in Law, where lawyers (and sisters, hence the name) Alison and Jillian Barrett answer legal problems.

The questioner, identified only as ‘Alice’ from South Australia, wrote: “I recently ordered some takeaway from my local – and the food was so gross it was inedible. It was all greasy, limp and, worst of all, the chicken looked like it might even be off, so I was too scared to eat it. I contacted the restaurant to ask for a refund and they refused, so I gave them a one-star review online. Now, they are threatening to sue me for defamation. Should I be scared, or are they just trying to bully me?”

The identity of the restaurant has not been revealed.

In response, Barrett and Barrett suggested that Alice “probably” has “little to worry about”, as they assumed that the review, as far as they could tell from the question, was an honest reflection of the meal.

The pair explained that one crucial detail for something to count as defamation is that the information that “makes their [the restaurant’s] customers or potential customers think less of them or not want to purchase food there” must be false.

When it comes to reviewing restaurants, this can be rather tricky, as opinions on food and service are subjective. For example, while someone might praise a leisurely pace of service, most would probably condemn it as slow, and one person’s al dente is another’s undercooked.

Furthermore, though Barrett and Barrett do not mention this, most restaurants have some quality inconsistency from day to day, making it difficult to prove/dismiss a customer’s claimed experience from a particular meal.

Barrett and Barrett also note that negative restaurant reviews that are “a matter of public interest (to avoid others from potentially suffering food poisoning)” also have a good defence against claims of defamation.

The pair then suggested: “To be awarded any damages in South Australia, the restaurant would need to show that your review alone caused ‘serious harm’ to their reputation. In this case, serious harm would need to be, for example, a substantial decline in their business income. If there are other scathing one-star reviews we expect this would be difficult to show.”

“It may be that the restaurant merely wants you to remove the review. You may consider doing this if you want their threats to stop or as a precaution if you are concerned about the contents of your review,” they added.

The issue of the effect online reviews have on restaurants is a complex one, particularly given that there tend not to be checks on whether the reviewers actually dined there in the first place. Last month, db dug into whether negative TripAdvisor reviews really can close down restaurants.

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