An eBay seller who sued two customers over their negative feedback online has been ordered to pay $19,250 to cover their legal fees.
This week, a judge ordered Med Express Inc., a refurbished medical equipment seller who sued back in 2013, to pay for the two Ohio lawyers who defended the case pro bono.
Med Express filed a lawsuit for libel in Medina County's Court of Common Pleas in Ohio in 2013, claiming that their feedback on eBay hurt the company's reputation and a lower overall rating increased seller costs to eBay.
One of those customers was Amy Nicholls, an office administrator for a manufacturer in Greenville, South Carolina. She bought a microscope light for her employer in February 2013 from Med Express. After paying $175 plus $12 in shipping for the item, Med Express said in the court filing that it "took the equipment to the Valley City post office, where it was weighed and shipped to Nicholls."
Though Med Express claimed that it paid the full shipping cost, "for some reason unknown to Med Express, the equipment was received by Nicholls with $1.44 postage due," according to the court record. Med Express apologized immediately and offered to reimburse Nicholls for the postage due, but she went ahead and posted a "negative" comment about the charge on eBay's website: "Order arrived with postage due with no communication from seller beforehand," she wrote.
Med Express filed a nearly identical suit on the same day against another customer, Dennis Rogan. He left a "neutral" review.
After receiving negative publicity over their suit, Med Express apologized and said it was withdrawing the lawsuit.
"Please understand that our customer was never the target of this lawsuit. We had instructed our attorneys to ask for $1 in damages. Her feedback was also never an issue. We fully support her right and all of our customers' right to leave any feedback they desire -- true or otherwise!" Med Express President Richard Radey wrote in a statement back in 2013. "The issue involved Detailed Seller Ratings or DSRs. The low ratings caused us to lose our Top Rated Seller Plus standing."
But in April 2013, Nicholls, with the help of Jeffrey Nye and Thomas Haren, two lawyers in Ohio who offered to take the case for free, filed a counterclaim against Med Express and its attorney, claiming frivolous conduct and "malice or aggravated or egregious fraud." They cited seven different times Med Express sued out-of-state eBay customers who would have difficulty defending themselves in court. Nicholls' attorneys said they had seen Radey's comments and were aware he had dropped the lawsuit against Nicholls, but they continued with their countersuit all the same.
Med Express did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News about this week's ruling by the court, which heard the cases for Rogan and Nicholls together and issued the sanctions in favor of them jointly.
After the ruling, Nye and Haren said in a joint statement, "We were obviously happy to see that the Magistrate recognized the frivolous nature of the claims."
"Should the Magistrate’s Decision be adopted by the Court, and we certainly expect that it will, this long and frustrating battle will finally be concluded. Thankfully Amy and Dennis stood up for what they believed in, and in doing so they struck a blow in favor of the First Amendment rights of all online commenters," the attorneys said in the statement.
They said the case highlights the need for Ohio to join more than twenty other states in enacting an anti-SLAPP statute, which stands for strategic lawsuit against public participation, "so that Ohio citizens will be protected from bully tactics."