UPDATE: There are a few new wrinkles in the case.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE: Let’s say you left a negative review on eBay. Maybe the seller wasn’t prompt in delivery, or maybe they weren’t completely honest about the product. Whatever. At what point would you feel like you needed to remove or edit that feedback? What if the buyer corrected their mistake – or made it up to you in some way. What then? Would you reconsider if the buyer sued you for damages?
An eBay seller is suing a buyer after she left a negative review on the site and refused to rescind it – and the buyer isn’t backing down. The negative feedback was over an unexpected $1.44 postage charge.
According to the complaint, Amy Nicholls purchased a microscope part from Med Express in February. As a result of that purchase, Nicholls incurred shipping costs ($12 on top of the $175 purchasing price).
Med Express took her payment via PayPal, and shipped out the device. When it arrived to Nicholls, there was an extra $1.44 postage due.
Who’s in the right? Is there any reason for a seller (or business) to sue over a negative review? Should a buyer ever be instructed to remove a review? Is it all about what can be proven libelous? Where do you draw the line? Let us know in the comments.
Nicholls, operating under the eBay moniker chimera_studios, posted on February 26th that the “Order arrived with postage due with no communication from seller beforehand. It was logged as a negative feedback on eBay.
Med Express quickly responded, saying that “Sorry – no idea there was postage due. This has happened alot (sp) from USPS lately.”
Over the past year, Med Express has 298 ratings, only 2 of which are considered negative. Their positive feedback percentage stands at 99.3%.
“When notified of the problem, Med Express immediately offered to reimburse Nicholls for the postage due amount. Despite this offer, and before giving Med Express a chance to reimburse her, Nicholls on February 26, 2013, apparently as a result of the $1.44 postage due, posted negative feedback and comments for the transaction on eBay’s website and gave Med Express low ratings in the Detailed Seller Ratings section of eBay’s Feedback Forum, resulting in an unfavorable feedback profile for Med Express. In so doing, Nicholls falsely and deliberately slandered the good name and reputation of Med Express.”
Med Express goes on to say that Nicholls caused them irreparable harm and caused them to lose customers and income.
They seek not only an injunction to remove the negative feedback, but also damages (both punitive and reparative).
The facts of the case do not seem to be in dispute. And in a letter to Med Express, Paul Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation Group (on behalf of Nicholls) makes it clear that the feedback about them is true, and that Med Express admitted to that in communications with him. That, and the lawsuit itself is the definition of frivolous.
“In a sense, what you and your client seem to be contending is that your client’s offer to pay the $1.40 is a sufficient display of contrition that Nicholls ought to be forgiving. But the point that she made in her message to you was that the problem wasn’t the money but the hassle. she indicated that she would have been willing to pay $1.40 more in shipping up front, but that she was posting feedback because a company that ships products ought to be able to do a better job.
That opinion might be right, or it might be wrong, but harboring it and expressing it is not a tort. And it is certainly no reason to seek damages, attorney fees, and an injunction. Consumers might well take this sort of bullying into account when they are thinking about whether to do business with Med Express,” says Levy.
“Moreover, the relief you are seeking would be injurious to consumers. Your other potential buys have an interest in knowing the history – that, for a period of time, you were repeatedly using a shipper knowing of problems that could result in user having to pay postage due.”
Remember the response Med Express had for Nicholls? “This has happened alot (sp) from USPS lately?”
Of course, Levy argues that’s not really the most important part. Summarily, Ohio law and the First Amendment prevents Med Express from suing over this type of negative review.
eBay isn’t the only place online where reviews have been an issue for the courts. A few months ago, a judge ruled that a women must edit part of her review of a contractor on Yelp and Angie’s List, after she accused the company of stealing jewelry from her home. A later decision overturned that one, ruling that her postings were free speech until proven defamatory.
There are a lot of far-reaching implications in cases like this, and the aforementioned eBay case. On one hand, courts can’t universally protect anything a reviewer ever says under the umbrella of free speech. That would open the doors to false reviews and flat-out lies directed at businesses in the attempt to smear. We know that this isn’t legal.
On the other hand, it’s dangerous to set a precedent that says businesses can successfully win suits like this. At that point, it’s a slippery slope to open season on internet users and their legitimate complaints. Do we really want the courts clogged up with lawsuits over a one-sentence blip of text like “God, worst burgers ever”?
What do you think? Where’s the line? Do you think that the eBay case we’ve discussed is pretty cut and dry? Can you foresee circumstances where this sort of thing gets more complicated, and the right decision becomes harder to discern? Let us know in the comments.[via Ars Technica]