Murky waters in fishy net defamation

Out-Law News | 05 Apr 2002 | 12:00 am | 2 min. read

A group of aquarium hobbyists is being sued in New York for damages of $15 million by the owner of PetsWarehouse.com, which claims to be the world’s largest on-line pet supply store, after making negative comments on-line about the standard of customer service.

Robert Novak’s allegations go further than typical cases of internet defamation: conspiracy, hacking and death threats are charges that have been levelled against numerous members of the Aquatic Plant Digest (APD), a forum more used to discussing how to minimise algae growth or finding the optimum wattage per gallon for aquarium lighting.

According to Long Island Business News, Dan Resler, a mathematics professor by day, fish fancier by night, posted a notice on the APD message board having been, in his opinion, overcharged for the shipping of plants ordered from PetsWarehouse.com. Resler wrote:

“Thinking of buying plants from Pet Warehouse [sic]? Don't. Actually the plants I received were average to maybe a bit below average, but they'll pull through in my tank. What is crappy is their service! And they're maybe even a bit dishonest.”

This prompted another APD user, Chris Newell, to publicly agree. He posted this message:

“You said it. The customer service is terrible. I have had the same experiences with delays and a who cares attitude.”

Encouraged by this, Sean Carney joined the attack:

“the dinky portions of marsilea and dwarf sag I got aren't anywhere near what I thought I'd get. Not only that, but I coulda gotten MORE plants for the money at PETSMART! What they call a 12 lot is actually more like 1 lot. No deal here except a bad one! I think the reason I didn't get my crypts and Windelovs was because the bull biscuits about ‘12 lot price’ would have been laid bare. I believe they call that deceptive advertising. Or bait-and-switch. Take your pick. […] Stay away from them!“

Other aggrieved customers joined in – and then Robert Novak of Pets Warehouse decided to sue. His lawsuit, filed on 30th May in a New York district court, named Resler, his fellow bulletin board posters and Active Window Publications, the host of APD.

Novak is representing himself – he describes law as his hobby. Lawyers who keep fish as a hobby are assisting some of his opponents and waiving their fees.

Novak charged the fish keepers with defamation. According to Long Island Business News, he demanded $10 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Then he alleged that Resler and others had hacked the computers of PetsWarehouse.com. He amended his lawsuit to add these charges, together with allegations of death threats against him and his staff and to claim further damages for emotional distress. He also alleges trade mark infringement because the words “Pets Warehouse” were included in the meta tags of sites that linked to a defence fund for the hobbyists.

Some of those named in the lawsuit have settled with Novak because they could not afford to risk the possible expenses of fighting the case. Among the settlement deals, according to Salon.com, some paid damages to Novak and some had to run banner ads on their own web sites to promote PetsWarehouse.com.