A Port Macquarie surgeon is suing Google for defamation over an auto-complete search suggestion that he believes has cost him clients.
Google has been involved in several lawsuits around the world in the past year revolving around its autocomplete suggestions and has increasingly been held responsible for content on its search pages.
The suit, filed by Dr Guy Hingston in the US district court in California, claims that when you type "Guy Hin ..." into Google the words "Guy Hingston bankrupt" appear in the auto-complete. He claims this is defamatory as he is not bankrupt.
Dr Hingston's Australian lawyers Beazley Singleton had written to Google Australia in December threatening legal action. The firm wrote Dr Hingston had "lost a number of patients and financiers [who] are refusing to deal with our client as a consequence of the reference on google which is associated with his name".
The complaint, seen by Fairfax Media, claims Dr Hingston's career as a breast surgeon depended on maintaining a good reputation which had been damaged after Google had shown him in a "false light". He is seeking at least $75,000 in damages plus court costs for the "significant harm and economic loss" caused by the matter.
According to a Port Macquarie News report from January 2009, an aviation group owned by Dr Hingston, CoastJet, closed its doors and went into administration two-and-a-half years after he bought it. He told the paper the main reason for CoastJet's demise — which reportedly resulted in the loss of 30 jobs — was the loss of a $2.8 million deposit on two new jets when American company Eclipse Aviation went into bankruptcy.
An April 2009 Port Macquarie News report said CoastJet, loaded with debt, was being bailed out by a Chinese billionaire. On Tuesday a phone number listed online for CoastJet was disconnected.
Separate documents obtained from Insolvency Trustee Services Australia show Dr Hingston was bankrupted on August 4 2009.
Dr Hingston's lawyer Philip Beazley said that bankruptcy had been annulled. He also confirmed the reported facts surrounding the collapse of CoastJet, saying it was designed to be a community ambulance service.
Google declined to comment on the case.
Through his lawyer, Dr Hingston said he did not think it would be appropriate to comment further whilst the matter was before the US courts.
Dr Hingston's website DrGuy.com.au describes him as a "cancer surgeon, author & speaker" and he sells men and women's health books on his website which he describes as a "service manual for life".
In October last year a jury in Australia found Google liable for $200,000 in damages after a complaint that its search results linked 62-year-old Melbourne man Milorad Trkulja to gangland crime. He had previously won a similar case against Yahoo.
Last year former German first lady Bettina Wulff sued Google over the autocomplete phrases "Bettina Wulff prostitute" and "Bettina Wulff escort". The case has yet to be resolved.
Google was ordered by a Tokyo court in March last year to disable certain autocomplete results related to a Japanese man which linked his name with a series of crimes. His lawyer had said he lost his job and had been rejected for others he'd applied for as a result of the autocomplete issue.
In January last year a French court fined Google $65,000 because the search engine's autocomplete function prompted the French word for "crook" when users typed the name of an insurance company.
Google writes on its website that autocomplete results are "a reflection of the search activity of all web users and the content of web pages indexed by Google".
Leanne O'Donnell, senior associate with Herbert Geer in Melbourne said Google's defence would likely be that the autocomplete results are automated and it does not control them.
She said the Trkulja case in Australia "opened the door" to Google being held responsible for the contents of its search pages but the Hingston case would be a "test case" in the US, where courts may be more "reticent to interfere", in part because of greater protection of free speech.
In another case, the ACCC has alleged before the High Court that Google should be held responsible for its AdWords. A decision in this matter is expected in February.
"Normally [Google] would try to say 'we don't publish it, it's just an automatic algorithm it's not like a newspaper publishing a column', but that's something that the courts are now examining in more depth," O'Donnell said.