Residents fed up with earthquake repair work need to be wary of naming and shaming "dodgy contractors" online, warns a defamation expert.
Online discussion boards have become a popular way of discussing issues, asking for advice and grizzling about perceived injustices. However, hiding behind a username is not protection enough from potential legal action.
On an online Christchurch earthquake discussion board the ninth-most popular post is entitled: "Name and shame dodgy contractors". Then the poster asks: "Are we allowed to do that on here?"
What follows are stories from commenters either praising or lamenting the work of various contractors.
One warns fellow readers not to touch a particular company "with a barge pole". Another said a painting company had splashed paint on their carpet and knocked over their cat's food bowl without cleaning it up.
However the trend got to one poster.
"This is appalling! Naming and shaming publicly without the other party having the opportunity to present their side of the story is disgusting."
University of Canterbury law lecturer Ursula Cheer said shamed contractors could take legal action. "One can understand why they want to vent but anything online can be subject to defamation."
Courts define defamation as statements that lower a person in the estimation of "right-thinking members of society", or that tend to cause them to be "shunned or avoided", or exposed to "hatred, contempt or ridicule".
Cheer said it was fine to express an opinion but it had to be based on facts and be genuine.
There have been no cases in New Zealand to test whether defamation action could be brought against an online user but overseas service providers have been asked to disclose users' identities.
Cheer said a new defence of "general public interest" was emerging that allowed people to get the facts wrong but this had to be done in a "responsible" manner.
Another commenter on the discussion board believed it was "perfectly normal" to offer reviews by detailing experience of trades and services.
"In this way good companies become great companies and poor companies become no more."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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