Animal hospital sues former client over viral TikTok videos claiming clinic mistreated her dog

An animal hospital in Surrey, BC, is suing a former client over a series of critical TikTok videos she posted about her dog’s treatment, with the vet claiming the woman’s “reprehensible” viral posts are damaging the business’s reputation.

Victoria Veira, 36, posted a series of videos this spring claiming Surrey Animal Hospital mistreated her dog, Charlie, after she had him neutered in March. The clips have together racked up around 900,000 views.

But in its lawsuit filed in BC Supreme Court, the clinic said Charlie’s post-surgery infection was Veira’s responsibility and it accused her of posting the videos knowing her story wasn’t true, deliberately dragging its reputation through the mud.

Veira has not filed a response to the claim in court.

Experts say the case adds to a growing trend of defamation lawsuits involving statements made on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

But TikTok, they say, is a new arena that will potentially see judges weighing a number of thorny issues, including appropriate limits on freedom of speech and the platform’s ability to spread stories much further than the original poster might have anticipated.

The video draws over 800,000 views

One of Veira’s first TikToks about the clinic, posted on April 2, showed part of a heated argument between her and a staff member at Surrey Animal Hospital.

Veira stands in the clinic’s waiting room, filming an employee wearing navy blue scrubs. The two women shout at each other briefly before Veira turns to leave, telling another man to take his dog to another vet as she goes.

To date, that video alone has more than 800,000 views.

Over the next several months, Veira posted several more TikToks highlighting the clinic’s one-star reviews on Google, its record of disciplinary action and a three-part series explaining the treatment she said her dog received.

She said Charlie, an Akita mix, developed an obvious infection after the neutering procedure.

Veira said she took her dog for multiple follow-ups and got a second opinion from another vet in Langley, but the infection persisted. The argument from the first TikTok happened on a final follow-up.

“I brought my dog ​​to a slaughterhouse. OK, I shouldn’t say that, that’s what I mean, I’ll take that back, but I took him to a bad vet, that’s for sure,” Veira said in one TikTok.

In its lawsuit, the clinic said Charlie’s infection started because Veira didn’t use a stiff donut cone to prevent Charlie from licking the wound. In one of her videos, Veira admitted Charlie had been able to reach the incision around an inflatable collar but said she quickly switched it to a solid cone.

The clinic claimed Veira was “irate” and “threw items” at the receptionist during their confrontation, while Veira denied any assault and said it was the receptionist who shouted at her.

Most of the content can still be viewed online even though the clinic sent Veira a cease-and-desist letter around two months after she posted her first video, according to the lawsuit.

Surrey Animal Hospital is pictured, a one-storey building with large red letters.
Surrey Animal Hospital pictured on Wednesday. The clinic’s lawyers said Veira leveraged TikTok with multiple posts to ‘maximize’ damage to the facility’s reputation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The clinic’s lawyers said Veira posted the video on TikTok with “reckless indifference” to the facts. They said Veira understood TikTok had a huge reach and leveraged the platform with multiple posts to “maximize” damage to the clinic’s reputation.

“The defendant is guilty of reprehensible, high-handed, spiteful, malicious and oppressive conduct,” the lawsuit read.

“Such conduct … justifies the court in imposing a substantial penalty.”

The lawsuit asked the court to ban Veira from posting new videos about the clinic and order her to permanently delete the old ones.

Is TikTok particularly prone to defamation?

Defamation lawsuits involving social media posts have become fairly typical in recent years as people become more accustomed to sharing their displeasure on the internet.

Last month, an unhappy customer who left negative reviews on Yelp was ordered to pay a wood products company on Vancouver Island $90,000 in damages.

TikTok claims are rare, but law experts say a negative review there could be more likely to provoke a lawsuit than on other platforms because of its intuitive algorithm and extremely potentially viral nature: one post can spread to millions of people overnight, especially if the video is picked up by the programmed “For You” page.

“It’s not hard to imagine in a viral scenario, where something spreads like wildfire on one of these platforms, that the business has actually been damaged… because the reputation so quickly has been tarnished,” said Justin Safayeni, a partner at the Stockwood’s LLP litigation boutique in Toronto.

On TikTok — which has become one of the most popular websites in the world, with more than two billion downloads — examples of daily pop ups of people trying to take down celebrities, brands and institutions.

Issues range in seriousness from frustrated job applicants holding major companies accountable for discriminatory hiring practices to teary-eyed high school students calling out their nail salon for a disappointing manicure hours before prom.

“Everyone’s a publisher now and the result of that is that we’re seeing more and more people being defamed with a much wider reach on platforms like TikTok,” said Daniel Reid, co-chair of the defamation and privacy group at the Harper Gray law firm.

Under freedom of expression, customers can post reviews of a business on sites like TikTok, but there are limits: Their stories must be true and their comments must be based on facts.

Defamation becomes an issue if the comments are false, or unreasonable based on what really happened.

“The standard for something to be defamatory is actually pretty low,” said Safayeni, who is not connected to the BC case.

“There’s nothing about a platform like TikTok or any other social media platform that kind of insulates you from the law of defamation… I think people would be well advised to be careful when choosing their words.”

With TikTok, there are additional factors. The platform’s younger demographic might not fully understand defamation law or the potential for steep financial consequences, Safayeni said, while the viral component could also cost defendants more.

A judge weighing damages would “definitely” consider how far a defamatory message has been circulated, Safayeni noted.

“Whether it’s TikTok or any other social media platform … the users of those platforms sometimes don’t foresee the consequences of what they’re posting,” the lawyer said.

By hadem