Ruff justice: Dog walker ordered to pay £3,000 in damages for defamatory Facebook post about business rival

A woman running a dog walking business in the Edinburgh area has succeeded in an action for defamation against another woman who operated a similar business.

Heather Hiram, trading as Safe & Sound Hound, claimed that a video uploaded to Facebook by Alana Mullen, trading as Pilrig Paws, led to the deterioration of her business and distress to herself, and sought £5,000 in damages. The defender claimed the defence that there was no defamation as the accusations made were truthful.

The case was heard in Edinburgh Sheriff Court by Summary Sheriff Adrian Cottam.

“Please avoid Safe & Sound Hound”

The defamatory post in question was a text post titled “PLEASE AVOID SAFE & SOUND HOUND”, with accompanying videos. It alleged that, while walking dogs at Pilrig Park, the pursuer had left multiple dogs in her van in temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius while she was out walking other dogs, with the video showing some of these dogs. It was also alleged that she had occasionally forgotten a dog and left it behind in the park, and that she and her younger helpers did not pick up after their dogs.

The post concluded: “I can’t let this go unseen. This woman has already had her boarding licence revoked as so many of her neighbours complained about the noise (something she denies in the video but is very easy to find on google). People are trusting this woman to look after their dogs and quite simply she doesn’t care. I fear she won’t care until something happens to one of the dogs.” The post was shared 1,581 times and there were many abusive comments posted below it with a minority of sympathetic ones.

The pursuer was “caught and confronted”, in the defender’s own words, in one of the videos. She claimed this terminology was designed to give an impression of wrongdoing on her part. She also claimed that a number of the other points made in the post were untrue and implied that there was a previous course of communication with the defender about these issues, which there had not been as the defender had never raised these issues with her before. She also claimed that the sentence “I fear she won’t care until something happens to one of the dogs” was a verbally injurious statement actuated by the malice of a competitor.

During proof the pursuer presented three witnesses who gave evidence of the pursuer’s skills with their dogs. In particular, the second and third witnesses spoke of how their dogs’ behavioural problems had improved since spending time with the pursuer.

The pursuer also gave evidence that she had received appropriate training to re-skill as a dog walker, and had a van customised by a firm that had done work for the SSPCA to be suitable for dogs. Most of her business was said to come from Facebook advertising, and she maintained a “regular cohort” of clients that had decreased since the post was made from 20 to about 16.

She also gave her own account of the incident described by the defender’s post, saying that the defender and another woman had started screaming at her “out of nowhere” and accusing her of abusing animals. She described “feeling sick” when reading the post and the comments and “confident” that it was a rival trying to destroy her business. She also stated that her van was equipped with a ventilation system that ensured the dogs were cooler than the outside temperature would suggest.

In response, the defender claimed that she had previously avoided running into the pursuer when out with dogs in order to avoid fights. She said that following the incident in the video she had contacted the SSPCA and made the Facebook post, and that the pursuer had exhibited similar behaviour on previous visits to the park.

The defender accepted that she could not have known about the van’s ventilation system, that she was mistaken in describing the pursuer’s boarding licence as revoked rather than refused, and that she should have anticipated the nature of the comments on the video. However, she claimed that she was not responsible for what others had said in those comments. She also said that she had agreed to make the post public at the request of another Facebook user.

“Feeling of repulsion and rage”

In his decision, Sheriff Cottam, after outlining his findings in law, said: “This claim, despite the obvious distress and emotion it caused all parties, comes down to a straightforward assessment (albeit not a simple assessment) of the truth of the contents of the post and the commentary ascribed to the video. There is no doubt that if, on the balance of probabilities, there is no truth in the comments then they were defamatory. Clearly the reputation of a dog walker would be lowered in the opinion of any right minded person reading it. In fact the comments posted showed the feeling of repulsion and rage against the pursuer and in effect proved even beyond doubt how the comments affected the view taken of the pursuer.”

After rejecting the defender’s claims about the pursuer’s disregard for the dogs in her care, he went on to say: “The main issue was the risk posed to the dogs by being left in the van. Here I preferred the evidence of the pursuer with regard to the modifications made and the fact the adaptations took away the usual risk of dogs in hot cars. There was no reason to disbelieve the cost and care that went into the van and this evidence pretty much defeats the main thrust of the post that the dogs could have died. There was no contrary evidence led or suggestion that the van was not so adapted. I do not go as far as to say the defender or Ms McCall deliberately lied regarding the risk as they saw it, but any belief they had was misplaced and they had not carried out any enquiry about the type of vehicle or facilities available.”

He continued: “To post comments implying the risk of the temperature, and comments and video relating to the harm that could be caused is clearly defamatory if in fact the dogs had not been left in a situation where such risk arose. It was the statement that her actions had caused this risk that led to the most abusive and angry comments, again showing this description (which I hold as not true) impacted on the view taken of the pursuer as a dog walker and her and her company’s reputation.”

In quantifying the claim, however, he took account of the relatively limited impact on the pursuer’s business, saying: “I am not persuaded the extent of the loss claimed by the purser was fully made out. I therefore determine that the appropriate amount to reflect the business lost (in so far as it is at possible to estimate) and the distress and verbal hurt should be limited to £3000. I therefore will in the final decree grant the first crave in the reduced sum of £3000.”

He continued: “However I also have to accept, from the later video (in Inch Park) played by the pursuer’s agent, that there is still a risk of reputational damage ongoing, especially following press coverage. As I have found that the comments were not true, and were at best misplaced and at worst calculated, I think it is appropriate to grant the second crave. The defender will therefore be ordered in the final decree to post an apology on Facebook, on her page and any shared pages operated by dog walking companies or associations, in the terms set out in the pursuer’s agent’s letter dated 18 July 2018.”

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