sues those who criticize its customer service
April 4, 2002 9:41 PM   Subscribe sues those who criticize its customer service on an aquarium-related e-list, then sues the defendants' legal defense fund and those who contribute to it. The defendants are forced to settle because they can't afford to continue their defense. More here and here.
posted by blissbat (18 comments total)
"Remember petSWEARhouse, buy their plants and you'll be swearing!"

I'll take "S words" for three-hundred, Alex.
posted by bloggboy at 9:46 PM on April 4, 2002

Wow, that is insane. I don't understand though, it's not libel if it is true. If the people complaining about the poor service indeed received poor service, what legal leg did the owner have to stand on?

Is Epinions liable for any negative opinions stated about any corporation, ever?
posted by mathowie at 9:59 PM on April 4, 2002

The end of commentary on the internet???
posted by planetkyoto at 9:59 PM on April 4, 2002

Matt, will you post the cease-and-desist letter when Novak sends it to you?
posted by argybarg at 10:18 PM on April 4, 2002

This is the kind of thing that makes me wish barratry was a more serious crime, in all states.

There needs to be a serious financial risk to bringing suits without merit.
posted by malphigian at 10:38 PM on April 4, 2002

Matt: for one thing, the Scientology copyright trick...the legal defense site used the phrase "Pets Warehouse" in their meta tags and so on. I don't think there's any way that he would have actually won, but since he considers this sort of thing a "hobby," he apparently knew just enough to keep it in court until the defendants ran out of money.

He's all defending himself on usenet, and here's what he says he's suing about:
...the focus of the suit is on the commercially false speech, computer fraud, tortious interference, trademark infringement and the damage it has caused.
He then goes on into a LIES! LIES! spiel.

(usenet link via slashdot.)
posted by blissbat at 10:46 PM on April 4, 2002

malphigian: it's called 'loser pays'. The loser has to pay the winner's legal fees. Sounds fair, doesn't it? If you win, why should you have to pay, when the a court has decided you were falsely accused? And in fact, that's the case in most countries.

But not in the US. It's one of the reforms frequently mentioned when people talk about tort reform, but given the huge political muscle of the trial bar, it's doubtful it will happen any time soon.

The lack of 'loser pays' is almost certainly why the defendants caved in this case. Even if the Pets Warehouse suits were thrown out, the defendants (who are ordinary people, without especially deep pockets) would be out thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in defense costs, with no recourse for recovering that money.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:54 PM on April 4, 2002

I'm so disappointed that the defendants settled. All they should have had to do was make a Rule 11 motion and get some sanctions slapped on this bastard.

Basically, you are not allowed to file a lawsuit specifically to harrass someone or to run up their legal bills. You also can't file a lawsuit based on a blatantly frivolous legal theory. It sounds like this case has all three.
posted by boltman at 11:13 PM on April 4, 2002

Also, he seems to engage in a fair bit of possibly libelous posting. himself
posted by bshort at 11:23 PM on April 4, 2002

I can't beleive they settled. Haven't they ever heard of "pro bono?"
posted by crunchland at 4:40 AM on April 5, 2002

Didn't a single rights organization such as the ACLU come to their aid?

Weren't there any ethical lawyers out there to champion the cause? Oh wait, I suppose that's an impossibility -- there are no ethical lawyers who just believe in doing the 'right thing'.
posted by eas98 at 7:54 AM on April 5, 2002

Hmmm - I know we've got some lawyers in the MeFi membership. If any are reading, what's the best approach to take if you're the target of a frivolous, unwinnable lawsuit by someone who has more money than you and just wants to force you to settle by making you empty your bank account. (Boltman, I don't know if you are a lawyer - if so, could you provide more details on how to file the Rule 11 motion?)

BTW - if anyone wants to help the defendents but doesn't have money to contribute to the legal defense, how about this: Write a calm, courteous e-mail to Mr. Novak explaining that while you wouldn't pay much attention to a complaint on a mailing list, you will not ever give your business to a company that sues customers for voicing complaints. Keep it polite, because this guy sounds like a hothead who would just delete a flame-mail (or keep it to sue you for harrassment.) If you keep it calm, the guy might start to realize he's actually hurting his own business.
posted by tdismukes at 8:17 AM on April 5, 2002

Oddly, none of the cited articles or anybody on MeFi has yet mentioned SLAPP, which stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation", or legal action, often frivolous, directed against a company's critics; California now has an anti-SLAPP statute. They've been discussed here before, though googling fails me.
posted by dhartung at 8:53 AM on April 5, 2002

That ... makes me ... so ... angry!

Googlebomb: petswarehouse.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 11:01 AM on April 5, 2002

"As part of the settlement, she turned over the rights to her domain to Novak, because she'd shut down when she was named in the suit. Other defendants had to run banners on their sites promoting Pets Warehouse." That is just plain creepy; imagine if Orbitz did that to everyone who badmouthed them. Great post, interesting subject.
posted by Mack Twain at 11:57 AM on April 5, 2002

Actually, this whole event is rather repulsive. And, I can't believe there are not more comments on this thread. Here, we often discuss the most inane things to death, but something important like this only gets, what, 16 comments?

This is your right to online free speech at stake, and all we can discuss is Oprah's book club. :(
posted by eas98 at 12:37 PM on April 5, 2002

Here is some more info. According to the site "To date a number of fellow aquarists who are also attorneys have volunteered their time on a pro bono basis. The defendants will still need to retain local counsel to defend them in the lawsuit"

Google shows that most of the results for PetsWarehouse after the first two relate to this lawsuit. Novak is shooting himself in the foot big time, but he's on a power trip, so he doesn't care. Now he's talking about suing the Better Business Bureau (which gave him its lowest rating) and Compuserve. Those two entities have lawyers already and will laugh at him. At this point I expect Novak to go out of business in fairly short order, since he's completely alienated the community that makes up his clientele. He's just trying to do some damage on his way out.
posted by tdismukes at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2002

sorry tdismukes, just a law student. But I do know that a Rule 11 motion is fairly easy to file. Anytime before the trial starts you warn the other side that you are going to file the motion. If the other side doesn't withdraw their claim within 21 days, you make the motion to the judge along with evidence as to why the suit was frivolous or harrassing or whatever. If the judge agrees, she can penalize the other side in a variety of different ways, including fines.

Of course, the problem with making ANY motions in a case like this is you have to hire a lawyer in New York or travel to New York yourself to do it, which obviously costs money. The high costs can be very problematic, but its not clear what a good solution would be. You have to come up with rules that will deal fairly with both frivolous cases like this and legit cases where the defendant might be a big powerful corporation and the plaintiff poor and unrepresented. For example, if a company incorporated in New York negligenced produced some sort of dangerous toy that killed a poor kid in California, you wouldn't want to force the family to travel to New York to file a lawsuit against the company.

These sorts of dilemnas come up all the time in the law. Take the "loser pays" rule mentioned above. It would definitely reduce frivolous lawsuits, but, since no lawsuit is ever a sure thing, it would also reduce legitimate lawsuits, particularly lawsuits that test a novel legal theory. Maybe that's a price worth paying, but it is a price nonetheless.

Rule 11 is another good example. In 1983, it was changed to make it much easier for courts to penalize lawyers that brought frivolous lawsuits. As a result, defense lawyers started filing Rule 11 motions against plaintiffs as a matter of course, often purely as a bullying tactic. Frivolous lawsuits by plaintiffs lawyers were replaced by frivolous rule 11 motions by defense lawyers. So they changed the rules again in 1993 and the balance of power swung back to the plaintiffs lawyers.
posted by boltman at 11:45 PM on April 6, 2002

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