Bloke flogs $40 B&W printer on Craigslist, gets $12,000 legal bill

frivolous lawsuitThe following saga of legal insanity comes via Tim (Hat Tip), and is found within the UK’s Register, but actually concerns a US case …

In 2009, Doug Costello sold a monochrome printer to Gersh Zavodnik in Indiana for $40, plus about $25 in shipping charges. Shortly afterwards Zavodnik, who has been described [PDF] by Indiana’s Supreme Court as a “prolific, abusive litigant,” went to court claiming damages.

Zavodnik initially filed his complaint in Marion County’s small-claims court asking for $6,000 in damages (the maximum amount allowed), as the printer was defective when it arrived. But that case was dismissed when Zavodnik admitted he had already thrown away the printer and could not produce it as evidence.

You might think, as Mr Costello did, that this puts an end to it all, but he failed to consider that Mr Zavodnik was a complete and utter lunatic … to quote a specific Supreme Court Dismissal notice …

Plaintiff Gersh Zavodnik is a prolific, abusive litigant. A search of his name brings up 123 cases in Marion County and other counties on the Odyssey case management system (which is not yet in place in all Indiana counties). All but three of those cases were filed since January 2008. Mr. Zavodnik is also a party in thirty-four cases before the Court of Appeals and this Court, including twenty-three special judge requests.

So here is what happens next …

Zavodnik then filed a case in the Marion Superior Court asking for damages for breach of contract, fraud, conversion, deceptive advertising and emotional distress. He asked for $30,000 but the court dismissed the case, along with 26 others that he had filed. The case was referred to the court of appeals in March 2012.

Zavodnik sent Costello two requests for evidence, one claiming he had conspired with the presiding judge and asking for $300,000 in damages, and another asking him to admit liability for $600,000 in the case of the $40 printer.

The problem here is that Mr Costello was not made aware of this, and so under Indiana law the case was awarded by default against him because he did not respond. Here is what happened next.

At this point, Costello lawyered up and his attorney filed to dismiss. The courts were slow on the matter and several judges recused themselves from the case, leading the state Supreme Court to appoint a special judge to oversee the case.

In March 2015, Special Judge Jeffrey Edens awarded Zavodnik $30,044.07 for breach of contract over the printer sale. He acknowledged in his ruling that the ruling amount “may seem extreme for the breach of contract for the purchase of a printer,” but that the law was the law. However, it did strike down the $300,000 and $600,000 claims.

Both sides appealed that verdict, but this time the case was heard quickly – later that month. The appeals court struck down the case and used strong language [PDF] in doing so.

Clearly common sense, which has been missing, was now starting to prevail, but alas, we have not yet reached the end game.

The case is still ongoing, however, since the appeals process isn’t the end of the line. Costello, who has spent $12,000 (£8,300) on the case so far, will have to carry on the litigation. But he says the experience has decided him on never, ever selling anything online again.

Why am I writing about this?

Well basically because I’ve been there myself. I was personally sued for $3 million by a religious lunatic who had taken exception to an anonymous comment under a posting on this blog. If I had ignored it and did nothing then a default judgement would have been issued against me.

If curious, you can read about my own story here.

The bottom line is this, if you blog, then you face the distinct possibility that at some point some nut with a lawyer on speed dial just might come after you.

When it comes to legal documents, don’t try to fix it yourself, take professional guidance.

However, to help prevent things ever going that far, here are a few steps you can follow …

  1. Maintain a clear policy on your blog regarding complaints. This makes it abundantly clear that real concerns will not only be addressed, but also outlines the steps anybody can follow for a successful outcome.
  2. Be Polite and professional in all interactions when you receive complaints and respond with a standard form letter. If you do end up in court then all such dialogues will be part of the case. You might indeed feel that your responses are private whispers, but they can potentially end up in the spotlight.
  3. Don’t ignore legal letters, doing so has consequences.
  4. If asked to take a posting or a comment down and it appears to be a reasonable request from an identifiable individual who has a specific interest, then take it down. You can then check the facts. If the complaint has no merit, you can simply post the item back up if it is appropriate to do so.
  5. Take Independent Guidance. It is easy to make assumptions or even to allow your emotions to cloud your judgement, so always seek impartial guidance.
  6. Don’t try to fix it yourself. Nobody would seriously consider DIY heart surgery, so don’t try the same when it comes to the law, get professional help.
  7. Network. There are many friendly skeptics out there willing to help and guide you if you get into trouble, there is no need to plough on in complete isolation.

None of the above in any way guarantees that you will never be sued. However, it will put you in a far better position and will also help you to avoid the frivolous and utterly pointless.

As for Mr Costello, I do find that I have a great deal of sympathy for him and suggest that his mistake was to try and represent himself.

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