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Duty of care on websites
The Court of Appeal in England has held that a trade association was not liable to users of its website in respect of statements made on the website. However, the judgment makes it clear that in certain circumstances, the operators of a website could be liable for the information they provide. This could happen where the website holds certain information out as accurate, for instance, that listed service providers are solvent, or of a certain quality, or are covered by a guarantee, and it is reasonable for people to rely on that information. This may be of particular relevance to rating or comparison websites.
The Swimming Pool & Allied Trades Association (“Spata”) maintained a website which stated that Spata members had been vetted and their work was guaranteed by Spata. Mr. Patchett chose a contractor from the website’s list of members. Unfortunately, the contractor became insolvent before completing the work. Mr. Patchett then claimed that Spata was guilty of negligent misstatement because the website did not make it clear that the contractor in question was only an affiliate member and that the vetting process and guarantee only applied to full Spata members – in other words, the information supplied by Spata was incorrect.
The Court held that because the website stated that users should ask for Spata’s full information pack on members (in addition to consulting the website) before choosing a contractor, Spata did not owe users a duty of care in respect of the website alone. Mr. Patchett should have consulted the information pack, which made it clear that the contractor was not covered by the vetting process or the guarantee.
The key legal point is that it was unreasonable for website users to rely on the website alone where Spata told them to consult the full information pack also. Implicit in the judgment is the fact that Spata would have been liable if it was reasonable to rely on the website alone, for example if no information pack was offered.
The Court noted some facts that indicated circumstances in which it was reasonable to rely on the website. Spata set itself up as the authority on swimming pool contractors, almost a regulator of them. The goal of its website was to encourage people to use the contractors listed there as members. Spata knew that people would rely on the statements on its website. Further, the website was not targeted at the public in general, but rather at a limited class of people, namely those considering using a contractor to install a swimming pool. All of these things suggested that it was reasonable to rely on the website. Spata was saved from liability because it told people to consult the information pack as well; this made it unreasonable for people to rely on the website alone. (Although it should be noted that the dissenting judge felt it was in fact reasonable to rely on the website alone, even with the offer of an information pack.)
The effect of this judgment is that where a website supplies information as definitive and encourages people to rely on that information, it may be held liable where people do rely on the information, and such reliance causes damage.