Risk Insider: Kate Browne

The Cyber Smear: A Growing Global Issue

By: | April 2, 2018 • 2 min read

Kate Browne Esq., ARM is Underwriters Counsel at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. She has spent her entire career in the insurance industry, and speaks and writes extensively on the impact on the legal implications of drones, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things, and other emerging risks. Kate can be reached at [email protected]

Corporations and businesses, both big and small, are used to criticism. In fact, a clay tablet displayed at the British Museum may be the world’s first consumer complaint. The tablet contains excerpts of a letter from an ancient Babylonian who received the wrong grade of copper in 1750 B.C. In the 21st century, unlike ancient Babylon, a competitor, disgruntled employee, or unhappy customer can quickly and easily cause widespread damage to a company’s reputation through tweets, blogs, online reviews, and social media.

There is a difference between legitimate criticism and defamation. While the precise law varies by jurisdiction, defamation is generally understood to be any false statement of fact that injures a person’s status, good name, or reputation in the community. Spoken defamatory statements are known as “slander”, and written ones are referred to as “libel.” Modern law generally disregards the distinction between the two, and simply refers to all defamatory statements as “defamation.”

The internet has opened an almost infinite array of places for defamatory speech to occur, leading to phenomena knows as “cyber smearing”. Cyber smearing is the anonymous posting of disparaging, or even defamatory, rumors and statements about a company, their executives or even stock via the Internet.

Companies cannot stop cyber smearing but they can prepare for the inevitable by having damage control mechanisms in place. Prevention and preparation are, without a doubt, the key to combating cyber smears.

Over the last few years lawyers around the world have filed lawsuits alleging cyber defamation and cyber smearing, several of which have resulted in sizable verdicts. On January 31, 2018, the Ontario Court of Appeals upheld a $700,000 award which included punitive damages in a dispute between former business partners. According to the Court, the defamatory activities, which consisted of anonymous emails and posts on internet bulletin boards, were “unrelenting, insidious and reprehensible” and stretched out over a “lengthy period” (Rutman v. Rabinowitz, 2018 ONCA 80).

In April 2016, a Nevada federal court judge upheld a $38 million jury verdict in favor of a Los Angeles real estate investor against a pair of former tenants and their company. The court said the award was supported by evidence and wasn’t excessive as the former tenants had created websites calling the real estate investor “the next [Bernie] Madoff.”

In 2012, a trial judge in Tarrant County, Texas reversed the jury’s award of $13.7 million to a lawyer and his wife who were falsely accused of sexual perversion, molestation and drug dealing in more than 25,000 online postings.

In 2006, a jury in Florida, awarded a woman $11.3 million for defamatory online postings.

Civil and criminal cyber defamation cases have been filed in dozens of countries including Ireland, England, India and Malaysia.

The Internet changed the world by giving us the ability to instantly share information and ideas with a worldwide audience. As the United States Supreme Court has observed, with the Internet “. . . any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox” (Reno v. A.C.L.U., 521 U.S. 844, 870, 1997). Companies cannot stop cyber smearing but they can prepare for the inevitable by having damage control mechanisms in place. Prevention and preparation are, without a doubt, the key to combating cyber smears.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]