Dog owner wins legal battle to keep bad review of kennel online

CTV News Published Friday, June 12, 2015 10:43PM EDT Last Updated Monday, June 15, 2015 6:52AM EDT

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Leilani Saad has been fighting for a long time to tell her story. It begins with a nightmarish experience at a local dog kennel, and ends with a $20,000 legal bill that she says was worth every penny.

In 2009, Saad, a registered veterinary technician, took her 13-year-old arthritic German Shepherd named Shep to Chasin’ Tails boarding facility in Calgary, while she was away on holidays for six days in Banff.

She called the kennel every day to make sure things were going smoothly and every day she was told that they were.

But, when Saad arrived to pick up her pet, staff told her that Shep hadn’t been eating, or sleeping on his dog bed.

Saad remembers the animal looking dehydrated, with a bleeding pressure sore on his elbow — he was taken to a vet right away.

The vet’s exam confirmed the dog had lost more than five pounds.

“I felt horribly sad that he had been left in that condition, and nothing had been done about it,” said Saad. “I was so angry that nobody told me, and nobody sought veterinary attention.”

Saad wrote about her experience on a now-defunct online review website called “Review Blue.”

Not long after it was posted, the Kennel threatened to sue both Saad and the website for defamation if the negative review wasn’t taken down. Review Blue had it removed.

Shep died about four months later and the episode quickly faded from memory — until 2012. That’s when surveillance tape from inside Chasin’ Tails showed then-employee Marc-Olivier Labonte abusing a small dog so badly, it vomitted blood.

“I just felt so guilty that I hadn’t fought harder to keep that review up,” said Saad. “Maybe if that puppy’s owners had seen my review, they could have made an informed decision about boarding their dog there.”

Knowing what the consequences were likely to be, Saad went ahead and wrote about her experience with the kennel on Yelp and Google.

“I had a horrible experience here,” she wrote on Yelp in 2012, three years after the incident. “I would strongly advise against this facility. Don't carry the guilt that I have carried with me for years.”

Not long after, she was once again staring down a lawsuit — this time Chasin’ Tails was seeking $70,000 in damages. Saad was pregnant with her first child and her young family wouldn't have the money to pay if she lost the case.

She hired Calgary lawyer Jonathan Selnes who told her that if they could prove that everything in the online posts was true, she would win.

Saad ultimately decided to fight the suit, no matter the cost.

“It was purely principle,” she said.

The case never actually made it to the inside of a courtroom. After two years and plenty of delays, the matter was finally settled in November 2014. Saad’s reviews are still posted online.

Saad has won the right to speak freely about the case and her experience with Chasin’ Tails, but it comes at a heavy cost. Legal bills piled up to $20,000. She has paid off some of that debt, but still has $12,000 to go — paid in monthly instalments of $500. She had no regrets.

“For me, my freedom of speech is priceless,” she said. “They shouldn’t be able to sue you for telling the truth… nobody should be able to bully anyone into censorship.”

Chasin’ Tails management declined to be interview for this story, but allowed CTV News cameras to tour their facility — which appears clean and sterile; and is staffed around the clock.

In a written statement provided to CTV News, assistant general manager Ashley Barton wrote in part, “The views of this past client is [sic] not representative of how Chasin' Tails upholds their policies and procedures, which is why legal action was taken to try and remove reviews from a client that used our services over 6 years ago.”

There have been other negative reviews similar to Saad’s posted to the kennel’s Yelp page, but the company says its defamation case against her is the only time its threatened or filed a lawsuit against a client for a negative review.

Ubaka Ogbogu, an assistant law professor at the University of Alberta says lawsuits like this one happen all the time. There’s even a name for them, “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP. In most cases, companies never expect the suit to actually make it to court.

“What they want to do is not necessarily succeed in the lawsuit, but to just intimidate or censor the person who wrote the review,” said Ogbogu.

He says people who post nasty reviews online should expect to be challenged by the company, but if it’s true and you can prove it, there’s no reason to panic.

“If what you publish is factual and the truth, that’s an absolute defence to defamation,” he said.

In Quebec and many U.S. states, legislation has been passed to try to prevent frivolous SLAPP cases.

Saad says she intends to lobby Alberta’s new NDP government to enact similar laws.

See story: The price of free speech online

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