Consumer Protection

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PIAC study seeks public input

Threatened or sued for complaining about a product or service? Let us know!

Have you been warned by businesses that you may be subject to legal action after you voiced your dissatisfaction with a product or service received from them? PIAC is conducting research on the consumer experience in this area, and we need your stories. Email us at piac@piac.ca if you’ve had such an experience, irrespective of whether the threatened legal action ever materialized.

THE ISSUE

In the past decade, Canada has witnessed a rise in lawsuits against individuals who have publicly criticized corporations. Increasingly, private interests are retaliating against individuals and public interest groups who criticize them by threatening to, or actually initiating, lawsuits for defamation or interference with economic relations. As a result, Canadians who simply exercise their right to express dissent (by, for example, writing letters to the BBB, government agencies or newspapers, or by organizing consumer boycotts), may find themselves subject to a costly lawsuit. These kinds of retaliatory lawsuits are known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

These suits have been particularly prominent in the area of environmental activism. However, they have also been used to stifle criticism about other business practices. PIAC is particularly concerned with the chilling effect that SLAPPs can have on consumer complaints and criticism regarding products, services, or business practices in the marketplace.

SLAPPs are initiated for the sole purpose of stifling public dissent or criticisms. As such, the corporations who initiate them aren’t seeking a judicial victory or financial compensation. Rather, they are aiming to intimidate, harass or distract their opponents so that people stop speaking out against them.

The legal basis for SLAPPs is usually weak, and they are tyically settled out of court. Nevertheless, the costs of defending oneself against such suits can be devastating. While corporations absorb these as the costs of doing business, they represent a significant burden for the regular consumer. In short, the significant personal and financial costs to defending oneself against a SLAPP suit deters consumers from publicly criticizing corporations or businesses, and thus stifle an important consumer protection mechanism.

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