Public interest or bullying? Homeowners sued for defamation over searing online reviews of ‘construction project gone wrong’

The case involves “a residential construction project gone wrong” at the home of John Leonard Lee Mullowney and Tonya Bender on Briarcliffe Drive.

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A judge will allow an Ottawa design firm and a construction company to sue two homeowners for defamation over the couple’s searing online reviews, which the judge said were more about bullying than they were about warning other consumers.


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“(N)ot all reviews are created equal,” Superior Court Justice Kristin Muszynski wrote in her decision, published last week. “In this case, I have concerns about the truthfulness of the expressions made by the defendants as well as the motivation for making the reviews in the first place, which appears to be primarily an attempt to bully the plaintiffs into returning the deposit.

“In my view, there is not a significant public interest in protecting this kind of expression.”

The case involves “a residential construction project gone wrong” at the home of John Leonard Lee Mullowney and Tonya Bender on Briarcliffe Drive in Rothwell Heights. In 2019, the couple hired Luc Crawford Design Inc. to do exterior renovations of their heritage home. The work was to take four to six weeks and cost $122,887.50, according to the court document. The couple paid a $61,443.76 deposit to Luc Crawford Design, which then hired Cyrus Construction & Renovations Inc. as a sub-contractor.


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Things went badly. Six months later, the work was still unfinished and Mullowney and Bender claimed the companies had abandoned the job and were refusing to refund the deposit. They took their complaints to social media. According to the court document, they criticized Luc Crawford Designs on the website, writing “our award-winning home has been in a shambles for over 6+ months… Avoid this company at all costs.”

On, they wrote, “Started off well, but things ended terribly,” also claiming they’d received no refund and no support from the two companies. They claimed Cyrus “took on more than they could handle” and said the work would have to be removed and redone.

The couple also posted an 88-second soundless video on YouTube titled “Ottawa Contractor Nightmare” with still photos of the unfinished job and what they claimed was deficient workmanship.


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The two companies sued for defamation. While Crawford and Cyrus acknowledge the work was delayed, they claim part of the problem was that Mullowney and Bender were slow to make decisions and buy material that they themselves had agreed to supply. The deposit, they say, was used to purchase material already used in the renovation. And they argue they didn’t abandon the project; it was the homeowners who terminated the contract.

Mullowney and Bender fought back, trying to stop the defamation lawsuit using Ontario’s “anti-SLAPP” legislation. SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation) — sometimes known as intimidation lawsuits or gag proceedings — are used as a means to silence criticism, frequently by one side that is more powerful and has deeper pockets than the other. Anti-SLAPP legislation is meant to level the playing field, protecting those who criticize, especially if there is public interest in what they have to say.


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But Muszynski didn’t buy the homeowners’ claim that they only wanted to warn others about their reno gone bad.

In a sworn affidavit, detailed in Muszynski’s ruling, Mullowney said he posted the reviews because he became “very concerned about the way in which the Plaintiffs treat current and future customers. I therefore felt it was necessary to voice my concerns and detail my experiences with the Plaintiffs’ publicly.”

But, the judge wrote, “There is evidence on this motion, however, that provides insight on another motivation Mr. Mullowney had for making the reviews.”

She cited a July 2020 email to Crawford’s and Cyrus’s lawyer in which Mullowney said he would continue to post bad reviews unless the companies agreed to refund the deposit.


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Mullowney wrote: “I note that unlike the reviews we have posted to date, the review sites we will be posting to in the coming weeks do not permit amendment or removal once the reviews are posted. As such, if these reviews are causing your clients grief, I would respectfully suggest that your clients turn their efforts towards settlement.

“On the subject of settlement: please note that if a full refund is received within one week’s time we are amenable to removing the reviews we have posted and will refrain from posting any further reviews,” the email said.

That didn’t sound like someone acting in the public interest, Muszynski ruled.

“It is difficult to reconcile Mr. Mullowney’s purported concern for the public with his offer to remove the reviews upon a return of his deposit.  Further, I find the threat of posting additional reviews and the comment about “causing your clients grief” concerning. This evidence is suggestive of an ulterior or indirect motivation.”


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While Muszynski said it wasn’t up to her to decide if there had been defamation, “I have grounds to believe that the defence of fair comment will ultimately fail.”

The judge also agreed that the two companies had provided credible evidence that their businesses had been hurt by the criticism. Crawford’s revenue fell by 40 per cent and Cyrus’s projects fell from 20 in 2019 to nine in 2020, though she noted “whether the plaintiffs will ultimately succeed in proving their claim for damages is not for me to decide.”

But she also defended the need for a public forum for criticism.

“(O)nline reviews of businesses serve an important public function. Negative reviews are a reality and, when made honestly and fairly, will not result in a successful lawsuit simply because the reviewee does not agree with the contents.”

Mullowney did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Nor did Luc Crawford Design, Cyrus Construction & Renovations Inc. or the lawyer representing them.

No date has been set for the defamation lawsuit.



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