eBay Seller Ratings Dispute Leads to Lawsuit
These two cheap coins sold on eBay have led to a $1,500 lawsuit.
By Michael Stillman
What nightmares has eBay wrought with its new seller rating system? With a system that affords sellers little defense against unhappy buyers, the ugly L-word - lawsuit - has begun to rear its ghastly head. Ironically enough, this threatens to throw the balance of intimidation from one extreme to the other, from buyer to seller. Ebay really needs to step in, though there is no indication the auction monopoly has any inclination to do so. They appear more content to let buyers and sellers slug it out, treating the situation as if they have no responsibility to play the role of referee.
As most of you who trade on eBay are aware, last year the auction site adjusted its feedback program, and skewed it to assist buyers. In the past, buyers could post negative feedback to sellers if they were unhappy with the transaction. If a seller felt the negative feedback was unfair, they could respond by giving the buyer negative feedback. Depending on your point of view, this could be considered retaliation, or a fair opportunity to present the other side of the story. Of course, this responsive feedback, like the initial feedback, could scare others from doing business with the person.
Evidently, eBay felt that the sellers' responsive feedback was more often retaliatory, or that it was intimidating victimized buyers from reporting unethical sellers. So, eBay set about protecting buyers. They announced that sellers would no longer be able to post feedback about buyers. Buyers were now free to post whatever they chose about a seller without fear of retaliation. Ebay also announced that sellers whose ratings dropped below a certain threshold (too many negative feedbacks) would be suspended from selling on eBay. The result was that sellers now found themselves at the mercy of their customers, particularly threatening to the large number of sellers who now make their livelihood on eBay. They could be put out of business by their customers. Of course, this is not a bad thing if the feedback is fair, and they are unethical or otherwise not suitable sellers. However, what if the negative feedback is dishonest, incorrect, unfair, or posted by a competitor? It doesn't matter. They still could be put out of business.
This brings us to the current case. Though filed a few months ago, the story became more widely known last month after a posting on the eBay message boards by the buyer/defendant, who had recently been served with papers from the court. We hereby caution that we cannot vouch for the accuracy of everything, or for that matter, anything, posted on message boards. So, while we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the particulars of this case, it does provide an illustration of what can happen in the new world of eBay feedback.
Apparently, a California buyer placed an order for a couple of cheap commemorative medals offered by an Illinois Powerseller and established auction house. The buyer had actually seen the items go by unpurchased earlier, and then wrote the seller asking they be reposted. According to the buyer, it took many months, requests and promises before the medals were again offered on eBay. In October, the medals were put up again, the Californian was the only bidder, and they sold for the unremarkable price of $4.99. Shipping was listed as $8.49 and it was stated that "the gold colored medal also features a case."
eBay Seller Ratings Dispute Leads to Lawsuit
The legal filing from the eBay ratings dispute.
The buyer was less than ecstatic about the transaction, and so she posted negative feedback, not the worst, certainly, but still a demerit in the eBay system. Her feedback stated, "Bad experience. Did not honor his word for months. Excessive S&H. Only one box!"
Now we can see the problem. The buyer was dissatisfied for reasons that had nothing to do with misrepresentation or the like. She was unhappy it took the seller so long to repost the item, she felt $8.49 was too much to pay for shipping a $4.99 item, and she felt both coins should have a box. However, all of this was clear from the seller's listing. He was under no obligation to repost, his shipping charge was clearly posted with the listing, and the description spoke only of the gold medal having a box. The listing was not deceptive, and the buyer had no obligation to bid if she was unhappy with the clearly stated terms. Nevertheless, she was still unhappy with the seller and eBay encouraged her to post any unhappiness for any reason without fear of retaliation. Meanwhile, the seller, who was completely straightforward in his presentation, felt the negative feedback could damage his reputation. And, he had no recourse through eBay.
What is a seller to do? Normally, he would let the comment roll off his back and move on. The seller has 99% positive feedback, and an occasional bad comment probably won't destroy a business. Nonetheless, he must have felt the unfairness of this complaint warranted some sort of response, and since eBay provided no means, he went to the only source he could find - the courts.
On October 10, 2008, E Baron, Inc., acting pro se (without an attorney), filed a complaint in the Cook County (Illinois) Circuit Court against Sandra Efroni. The plaintiff asks for $1,500, apparently for damages for some sort of libel or slander. According to the filing, the court fee is $159, meaning the plaintiff already has far more invested in this case than the transaction was worth. According to postings on the message boards, the defendant is out of work and in no position to afford to hire an attorney in Illinois. We are not sure what will happen from here, but unless the case is dropped, the costs are likely to mount. We are not familiar with Illinois law, but while this strikes us as a tough case for the plaintiff (he probably must establish that these comments are untrue, slanderous, and have caused him harm), he could win by default if the defendant does not appear in Illinois. However, he would then bear the costs of going to court in California to sue for payment on the judgment. All of this appears difficult, unpleasant, and costly for all concerned. Such disputes should not come to this, though perhaps in the future, they increasingly will.
Ebay has shown little inclination to get involved in such disputes. Perhaps they do not want responsibility, or do not want to pay employees to resolve disputes. However, eBay is no disinterested observer, no uninvolved matchmaker. Ebay is intimately involved in each transaction, collects a commission on them, and has provided a feedback system which can help the parties, but is also subject to abuse or misunderstanding. They have created the system that has led to this nightmare, where a seller can be subject to unanswerable, unfair criticisms, and buyers can be sued for expressing their honest, if sometimes misguided, opinions (which eBay encourages them to do). Ebay needs to stand up and play its role to resolve such disputes in a rational manner, or else the eBay experience will deteriorate for all involved.