Opinion, Defamation And eBay
I was out of the office looking at colleges with my youngest daughter last week, so I wasn’t able to post. Sorry. On my return, however, my oldest daughter sent me this article about a defamation suit that’s kind of interesting. A fellow named Michele Steadman (which I think was the name of the lead character on the old ABC TV show “Thirtysomething”) who bought a clock on eBay was a little upset when it came in three unmatched pieces. Although he got his money back, he was still sufficiently ticked off that he posted a comment on eBay noting that that seller had the “ethics of a used car salesman” (always a relief when they don’t use “lawyer” in that context). And speaking of lawyers, the seller turned out to be one. And he did what lawyers do best – file a lawsuit. And the lawsuit in this case was a defamation suit, contending that Steadman had ruined his 100% customer approval rating and harmed his “commercial reputation.” This case once again raises the question of whether opinion is or is not actionable. The easy answer is that an opinion is not the proper subject of a libel suit. I am entitled to say that Tony LaRussa is the very embodiment of evil. That’s my opinion. The tougher answer, though, is whether the “opinion” is really a disguised statement of fact. So I can’t say “In my opinion Tony LaRussa cheats.” In the eBay case, the question is whether Steadman essentially stated a fact about the seller, with his comment. I suspect he didn’t and that the statement would be deemed opinion. But as the article points out, Steadman has already run out of money to pay a lawyer. Given that feedback is a very popular feature of most sales related sites, we may see this issue arise more and more.