Restaurant owners win libel damages over scathing review after 11 year legal battle

Restaurant owners win libel damages over scathing review after 11 year legal battle

Freedom of speech fears in Australia after newspaper loses epic libel battle after restaurant collapsed

The review was followed by the closure of the restaurant six months later

By Jonathan Pearlman 12:04PM BST 11 Jun 2014

An epic legal battle in Australia over a withering restaurant review by a food critic has finally ended, with a newspaper forced to pay $AUS623,526 [£349,000] for a notorious critique which described the pork belly as “the porcine equal of a parched Weetbix [Weetabix]”

The 2003 review, by Matthew Evans, in the Sydney Morning Herald of plush waterside restaurant Coco Roco provided colourful descriptions of the “soggy blackberries”, “overcooked potatoes”, “outstandingly dull” roast chicken and limoncello oysters that “jangle like a car crash”, before warning readers – perhaps unnecessarily - to “stay home”.

“I've never had pork belly that could almost be described as dry,” Evans noted. “Until tonight... Why anyone would put apricots in a sherry-scented white sauce with a prime rib steak is beyond me.”

The review, which delivered a nine out of twenty rating, was followed by the closure of the $AUS3 million (£1.7 million) restaurant six months later and then a decade-long Bleak House-style defamation lawsuit. The case went to two jury trials, a trial before a judge, two appeals, two special leave applications to the High Court and a full High Court hearing.

One of the three restaurateurs, Ljiljana Gacic, a former Miss Adriatic beauty queen, told the New South Wales Supreme Court she gained nine stone and attempted suicide after the review; her sister and fellow restaurateur, Aleksandra Gacic, said she could not walk for half an hour after reading it.

The newspaper eventually lost the case after a court ruled that the review failed to adequately point out that Coco Roco included two restaurants and that Evans had eaten at the upmarket Coco and was not reviewing the bistro-style Roco.

Evans had eaten at Coco the day after its grand opening and again the following week along with a companion but – according to the court – he never entered Roco.

His review of the “swank new eatery” did state: “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.”

But a court ruled that “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 saga finally ended last week when the New South Wales Supreme Court made a ruling on interest on damages and came up with its final figure of $AUS623,526, plus costs.

Justice Peter Hall noted the lengthy history of the case, saying the hurt to feelings and damage to reputation continued because the article remained online.

“The evidence establishes the defamatory article has ­remained on the internet apart from one particular year,” the judge said.

“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.”

Evans, who quit reviewing and moved to the island state of Tasmania about six years ago, said the ruling marked “a sad day for Australian food journalism”.

“I think reviewers and publications become fearful of being sued,” he told The Hobart Mercury.

“You wouldn’t wish being sued on anybody, and being sued for doing your job. The tragedy is I no longer write restaurant reviews.”


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