Douglas Costello, a Massachusetts resident, learned the hard way that the ease and convenience provided by Craigslist can come at a hefty cost when he was dragged into court in Indiana. In 2009, Costello sold a used printer on Craigslist to Gersh Zavodnik for about $40. Unfortunately for Costello, Zavodnik happens to be a member of a group of serial litigants acting without attorneys whose goal is supposedly to “end Marion County judicial corruption.” The details of Costello’s troubles give a great example of just what kind of “eccentric” people one might find in the anonymity of the internet.
Zavodnik first sued Costello in small claims court claiming the printer was broken when he received it. He sought the maximum recovery of $6,000 but lost. He appealed to the superior court and began to serve requests for information, called discovery, on Costello, including requests that Costello admit certain facts for the purpose of the law suit. Zavodnik used these requests for admission for more bizarre and nefarious purposes. One request asked Costello to admit that he and the judge had conspired and plotted against Zavodnik, and another asked that Costello admit he is liable to Zavodnik for more than $300,000. Still another asked Costello to admit liability of $600,000. The admission that became the ultimate issue of the appeal asked Costello to admit he was liable to Zavodnik for $30,044.07 for breaching an alleged contract to sell him the $40 printer.
According to the rules in Indiana, Zavodnik demanded that Costello respond within 30 days. Unfortunately, at this point in the case Costello was not represented by an attorney, and he did not respond to the requests within the 30-day time limit. Costello claimed that he never received the discovery requests. The trouble here is that under the Indiana Trial Rules, if not responded to within 30 days, requests for admissions are deemed to be admitted, meaning that by not responding, Costello had “admitted” that he was liable to Zavodnik for $600,000 for selling a $40 printer and that he had conspired with the judge! Zavodnik later moved for summary judgment based on the admissions. Costello hired a lawyer who filed a motion asking for permission to withdraw the admissions.
The trial court allowed Costello to withdraw the admissions for $300,000 and $600,000, but held that he could not withdraw the admission of $30,044.07 and thus granted Zavodnik’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court itself acknowledged that the amount was “seemingly high” and the judgment “may seem extreme for the breach of contract for the purchase of a printer,” but nonetheless believed it had no choice under the rules.
The bizarrely high cost of a $30,000 judgment on a $40 printer is not the only oddity about the case. The first time the case went before the courts, it was dismissed along with 26 other cases Zavodnik filed, but was reanimated by the Court of Appeals for lack of a formal hearing. In the small claims judgment against Zavodnik, the court found that Zavodnik had purposefully disposed of the printer with the “intent to suppress evidence.” One motion filed by Zavodnik accused Costello of “wishy-washy wiggly deceptions.” Another motion brought the same day as the hearing on summary judgment and Costello’s request to withdraw admissions, was 53 pages and sought to disqualify the judge. It had a seven line, 65-word title and characterized the Supreme Court’s earlier opinion as “Zavodnik-character-assassinating-September 30th, 2014-biased-and-prejudiced-based-on-falsified-and-fabricated-capricious opinion issued by the Indiana Supreme Court, who will be held responsible for the said lies, the very same Supreme Court, which had no jurisdiction to issue that opinion[.]” That same Supreme Court opinion had harsh words for Zavodnik:
Nothing Mr. Zavodnik has filed or done in this case shows any desire to litigate this case expeditiously to resolution on the merits. Rather, he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filing. And this Court has previously warned Mr. Zavodnik against continuing such abusive and burdensome litigation tactics.
Luckily for Mr. Costello, the Court of Appeals of Indiana held that Zavodnik had intentionally abused the trial rules to circumvent the purposes of requests for admission and the relevant trial rules. The Court of Appeals thus reversed the granting of summary judgment, and said that Costello should have been allowed to withdraw all of the admissions.
This may have saved Costello from a $30,044.07 judgment for now, but it hardly undoes his woes. The case is still ongoing and was remanded to the trial court. Also, even victory at this point does not undo the now seven years of stress, anxiety, and legal expenses. All a heavy price to pay for selling a $40 printer online. The lesson in all of this is that the true price of the convenience of the internet sales market is an ever-present need for hyper vigilance.