When social media rants can land you in court

PETALING JAYA: Criticising a restaurant or a business online might seem like a trivial matter, but your words may land you in court.

A former employee of Champ's restaurant had made various allegations on Instagram and Facebook about its allegedly exorbitant prices as well as its hygiene.

The owner of the restaurant, Richard Nah, filed a court case for defamation.

On Jan 2, Kuala Lumpur High Court judge Datuk Nor Bee Ariffin ruled in favour of Nah.

Pak Loo Kee, according to court documents, had worked as a kitchen helper at the restaurant for two weeks in November 2014.

After leaving the restaurant, she wrote a review of the restaurant on Facebook on March 5, 2015 under the name "Loo Kee", alleging that the chopping boards used at the restaurant were the same ones used to cut meat and prepare fresh rojak and mango kerabu.

She further alleged that Nah had scolded the staff for serving customers with large prawns.

She had also alleged that the quality of food had dropped because Nah wanted to save costs, and that he had unhygienic personal practices.

The Facebook post, according to the statement of claim, at the material time had generated 28 "Likes" and was shared by one person.

Pak's statement of defence refuted that claim and said that when the Facebook post was removed, it had had only two "Likes" and had not been shared.

On March 9, 2015, (Pak) Loo Kee then made another allegation on Instagram, a post that was also shared on Facebook.

She claimed that the restaurant's Centrepoint Bandar Utama branch had failed hygiene standards and that customers had succumbed to food poisoning after consuming the food there.

She also said the restaurant was littered with rat faeces around the area where the plates were stored.

The statement of defence in court documents showed that the posting on Instagram received no shares, nor was it "liked".

However, in his argument in court, Nah said it was not relevant whether the allegations made on Instagram or Facebook had any "likes" or were shared.

He also denied all allegations regarding the cleanliness of Champ's outlets and his own hygiene practices.

Furthermore, court documents said Nah had argued that he had not received any complaints from customers or from the defendant herself, who had claimed that she suffered from food poisoning due to the unhygienic practices of his restaurant.

He also denied allegations that the prawns used in his prawn mee dish were small, arguing that his restaurant used large prawns and prices were made determined on economic factors and pricing was the prerogative of all restaurateurs.

According to the statement of claim, the plaintiff Nah had sought damages worth RM2.5mil, among others. It is not known how much the KL High Court's Nor Bee awarded Nah in her Jan 2 ruling.

Nah told The Star that initially, he only wanted a public apology from his former employee after she posted the defamatory remarks on Facebook.

"I waited for a few months and it (the apology) didn't happen, but then she went ahead and posted pictures of my restaurant on Instagram making the accusation about rat faeces.

"This happened despite my asking for an apology, so I went ahead and sued her," he said.

Nah said he also decided to sue Pak because he felt that social media should not be used as a platform to tarnish his business and reputation.

Counsel Max Yong from Shui-Tai Advocates and Solicitors, who represented Nah, said the court had found that they had succeeded in proving defamation, and that Pak's lawyers had failed in their defence of justification and fair comment.

"Damages and cost were awarded," Yong said.

He added that with its rampant use, the enshrined right to freedom of speech on social media must be harnessed with responsibility and verified truth.

"Otherwise once published, the damage may be irreparable," he said.

Meanwhile, Bar Council cyberlaw and information technology committee co-chairman Foong Cheng Leong told The Star that a person was free to post a review of a restaurant, on Facebook or elsewhere.

However, he said such a review should not be defamatory.

"Defamatory statements would mean the statement would expose the plaintiff to hatred, ridicule or contempt in the mind of a reasonable man, or would tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public generally," he said.

Nonetheless, Foong said sometimes it is hard to differentiate between what is defamatory or not.

"Generally, insults, negative reviews, or statements of opinion are fine. I can always say a restaurant food is terrible. It is fair comment."