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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Brisbane vet wins defamation battle against dog owner’s online reviews

A woman has been ordered to pay tens of thousands of dollars to a vet she defamed in a series of scathing social media posts.

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A Brisbane dog owner has been ordered to pay almost $30,000 in damages for defaming a vet on social media by claiming he was “grumpy”, “took advantage of a distressed pet owner” and overcharged her for drugs given to her pet.

Allen O’Grady sued Carrie Barlow, who married during the six-year court battle and became Carrie Curtis, for seven separate comments she made on Twitter, Facebook and review site True Local over 10 days to October 24, 2014.

Mr O’Grady, a veterinary surgeon, owned and operated Albion Vet Surgery and Eatons Hill Vet Surgery at the time.

According to court documents, Ms Curtis is the administrator of a Facebook group known as “Freedom for Fair Online Reviews – Australia”.

THE VET VISIT

The judgment states Ms Curtis took her beagle Valentine to the vet for treatment on October 4, 2014 after it was attacked by two other dogs.

“The treatment was provided by an employee of the company and involved sedation, pain relief, cleaning and suturing wounds and dispensing of post-operative antibiotics.”

She was charged and paid $427 for the appointment, while also receiving a summary of fees breaking down the various costs of the vet visit.

But four days later, Ms Curtis emailed Albion Vet asking for further clarification, stating the “irresponsible owners of the vicious dogs” were refusing to reimburse her bill and the “mark-up” on one antibiotic seemed “a bit high”.

The vet practice manager called Ms Curtis on October 13 – a discussion lasting 16 minutes.

“Ms Curtis admitted that she had told the woman that she no longer intended to have her pets treated at the Albion Vet and required the records relating to her pet to be made available for collection,” the court documents state.

“At the conclusion of the conversation, an appointment was made for 8am, Wednesday 15 October 2014 for Valentine to see the vet nurse for the removal of the sutures.”

Ms Curtis received a letter from Mr O’Grady on the day of the visit stating “unfortunately” the vet was unable to provide services for her dog in the future including in-house after hours emergency service and discounted Saturday hydrobaths.

Carrie Curtis at the District Court in Brisbane last year
Carrie Curtis at the District Court in Brisbane last year

THE ONLINE RESPONSE

Ms Curtis then took to Twitter, True Local, the Albion Vet’s Facebook page and her own Facebook page, telling Brisbane dog owners to “Beware of the Albion Vet” and stating she had been “grossly overcharged” and “taken advantage of”.

Using an account with the handle @ValentineBeagle, she tweeted “Shame on you #albionvet”.

“I was offended by their refusal of emergency treatment if my dog ever needed it,” she wrote on True Local, while also admitting she had told them she’d be taking her business elsewhere.

“(I’d) always been a good customer and paid my bills at the time of treatment. This parting letter seemed pretty petty and unnecessary.”

In another review on the business directory website, she described Mr O’Grady as “grumpy” and someone “who should not be dealing with people or animals”.

“Her justification for describing Mr O’Grady as a grumpy person who should not be dealing with people or animals … essentially came down to him not saying ‘hello’ to her,” District Court Judge Suzanne Sheridan said in her judgment on Thursday.

In some posts, Ms Curtis claimed the mark-up was “400 per cent” and in others, 350 per cent.

“Ms Curtis complained about the mark-up and asserted in two of the publications that she was grossly overcharged, but in her cross examination admitted that the mark-up is dependent on what is included and that she ‘can’t make a judgment on what is reasonable and what is not’,” the judge said.

“In the end, where there is a conflict between the evidence of Ms Curtis, and others … I prefer the evidence of the others and I am not inclined to accept any of the evidence of Ms Curtis at face value.”

Brisbane vet Allen O’Grady
Brisbane vet Allen O’Grady

The defamatory imputations in her posts included that the company grossly overcharges its clients, takes advantage of them, and engages in unfair and unreasonable business practices.

Others were that Mr O’Grady was petty, uncaring and “not a nice person”.

Ms Curtis admitted to publishing the comments and the majority of the imputations conveyed within her online posts but denied that any of them were defamatory.

Judge Sheridan on Thursday ordered Ms Curtis pay Mr O’Grady and his businesses a total of $25,000 in damages, including aggravated damages, plus $4244.29 interest.

She said Ms Curtis had “persisted in pursuing the (failed) defence of justification and maintained at trial that the company and Mr O’Grady had overcharged and had engaged in unfair business practices”.

The judge described Ms Curtis’ apology as being at best “an apology for harm caused, not for the making of the statements”.

She said she was satisfied the proven imputations alleged are defamatory “in that they would have a tendency to lower the reputations of the company and Mr O’Grady in the eyes of the ordinary reasonable reader”.

Ms Curtis is “permanently restrained” from the future publication of comments or “words to the like effect” that she made in her seven defamatory posts.

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