Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald must pay three restaurant owners almost half a million dollars for libel over a 2003 negative review.
The review, headlined “Crash and Burn,” criticized the restaurant CoCo Roco for “‘soggy blackberries,’ ‘overcooked potatoes,’ ‘outstandingly dull’ roast chicken and limoncello oysters that ‘jangle like a car crash,'” the Telegraph reported.
The reviewer wrote that “more than half the dishes I’ve tried at CoCo Roco are simply unpalatable.”
But, what got the newspaper in trouble was that CoCo Roco is two restaurants — the “upmarket” Coco and “bistro-style” Roco — and the reviewer only went to CoCo.
The article has since been unpublished, but a picture of the print version is uploaded on Justinian.com.au. The Sydney Morning Herald did note that it went to Coco; however, the court decided readers would be misled, according to the Telegraph. The Herald‘s story said
“Coco Roco is actually two restaurants: Coco, the posh place upstairs off Lime Street, and sibling Roco, also smartly fitted out on the foreshore. Forever in pursuit of excellence, we choose the more expensive option. Expensive is right.”
The court decided that readers would have grouped the two restaurants together because of the review. “It was open to the [jury] to conclude that an ordinary reasonable reader would have read the matter complained of as referring to both restaurants,” the court wrote.
One of the restaurant’s owners testified that she gained considerable weight and attempted suicide because of the review, the Telegraph reported. Six months after the review, the restaurant closed and it has been battling the newspaper over the review for more than a decade. The newspaper originally wanted an apology, according to the Mercury.
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Clive Evatt, attorney for the three restaurant owners, told iMediaEthics by e-mail “The judgment speaks for itself.”
He added, “You may be interested to know notices of appeal have been filed by both sides so that there are a few more years left in the case. It is the Sydney version of Bleak House.”
Bleak House is a Charles Dickens novel. Goodreads, a book website, describes the book’s plot: “At the novel’s core is long-running litigation in England’s Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. The litigation, which already has taken many years and consumed between £60,000 and £70,000 in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery.”
Matthew Evans, who wrote the review, called he ruling “a sad day for Australian journalism,” News Corp.-owned Australian newspaper the Mercury reported. Evans is no longer working in restaurant reviewing and moved to Tasmania “to breed pigs and grow brussel sprouts,” the Telegraph reported last week.
The Australian judge added that because the article was on its website since 2003, there was further damage to the three restaurant owners, the Lawyer Herald reported.
“Such a continued publication over the years exacerbated the injury and hurt by the plaintiffs and had the effect of perpetuating or exacerbating the hurt to feelings and injury to reputation resulting from the defamatory publication,” Justice Peter Hall said.
iMediaEthics has written to the Sydney Morning Herald for comment.