|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 3047 - April 19, 2013 - ISSN 1539-5065 3 of 5|
Hell hath no fury like an eBay seller scorned.
It's widely understood that buyer feedback is tantamount to a form of currency on eBay's marketplace, and that negative comments can deal a major blow to sellers.
That concern has motivated an Ohio medical-equipment company called Med Express to initiate a lawsuit charging a buyer who left negative feedback over a shipping issue with defamation, and further seeking a temporary restraining order against eBay.
The buyer involved, Amy Nicholls of South Carolina, had ordered an item described as a microscope light source from Med Express. When Nicholls received the item she was dismayed to learn that it arrived with $1.44 in postage due, which she paid, but registered her complaint on eBay's feedback page, what appears to be only the second blemish on the seller's record in the past year.
Med Express addressed the trivial shipping charge on its feedback page, attributing the confusion to a mix-up with the Postal Service.
"Sorry- no idea there was postage due. This has happened alot from USPS lately," the seller wrote.
In its legal filing, Med Express explains: "Med Express paid the full amount of the shipping cost, but for some reason unknown to Med Express, the equipment was received by Nicholls with $1.44 postage due."
The company offered to reimburse Nicholls for the shipping charge, though it asked her to remove the negative comment, which read, simply: "Order arrived with postage due with no communication from seller beforehand."
On her refusal, Med Express initiated its defamation lawsuit, which prompted Nicholls to contact an attorney with Public Citizen, the consumer-advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader.
As it happened, Nicholls is a relative of a lawyer who had previously worked for the group, according to Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group who has documented the legal activity with the Med Express case.
Levy claims that he contacted a lawyer for Med Express and pointed out that the feedback that Nicholls left was an accurate description of her transaction. By Levy's account, Med Express' attorney did not dispute the veracity of Nicholls' comment, but insisted "that the case was going to continue unless the feedback was taken down or changed to positive. And he explained why his client was insisting on this change - he said that it sells exclusively over eBay, where a sufficient level of negative feedback can increase the cost of such sales as well as possibly driving away customers."
Med Express does appear to challenge the truth behind Nicholls' comment in its complaint, however:
"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."
Public Citizen's Levy argued that if Ohio had in place a statute against what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or an anti-SLAPP law, Med Express likely would not have bothered to file its complaint.
"In the absence of an anti-SLAPP statute, however, the plaintiff and its lawyer are counting on the inconvenience of responding to the lawsuit to induce the customer retract her criticisms, effectively helping Med Express to conceal from potential customers that, in at least one respect, Med Express may not be reliable," Levy said. "And yet, if the customer has to spend even a few hundred dollars to defend her right not to remove truthful criticism, she will already have lost."
On Thursday, Ars Technica reported that Public Citizen discovered that the seller, Med Express, had a history of suing buyers over negative and neutral feedback ratings.
Interestingly, records found on ToolHaus that shows the seller's feedback rating was not as unblemished as it appeared on the eBay website, which only shows ratings from the past 12 months.
Public Citizen wrote on Thursday, "From my review of many of the cases, Med Express typically files a complaint based on extremely vague assertions of falsity, against defendants who may be too far from Medina too respond effectively, seeks a temporary restraining order without giving any notice, and hopes to get relief before the defendant knows what hit him, her or it."
Ina Steiner contributed to this story.
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About the author:
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects since 2007, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. He can be found on LinkedIn here.
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