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Web site publisher wins damages in dispute with car dealership

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Web site publisher wins damages in dispute with car dealership

  • A district court judge awarded a personal Web site publisher nearly $7,000 for being silenced in his complaints against a local Pontiac-Nissan dealership.

Oct. 6, 2003 — An Alabama district court judge in late September upheld the idea that criticizing business is not only legal, it is a right.

Thomas Ballock, a personal Web site publisher, was awarded $6,776.45 in compensation on Sept. 22 for expenses, mental anguish and deprivation of his First Amendment rights when he was forced to erase content from two sites that were critical of a local car dealership.

Ballock’s problems began in February 2002 after buying a car from a Crown Pontiac-Nissan dealership in Hoover, Ala. On Ballock’s request, the Hoover Nissan dealer installed a sun roof, unknowingly violating the car’s manufacturer’s warranty. The matter dragged on unresolved, so Ballock started a Web site criticizing the Nissan dealership.

Crown Pontiac-Nissan’s attorney, John Galese, sought a preliminary injunction in May 2002, saying the Web site, hoovernissandealersucks.com, diverted traffic from Crown Pontiac, Inc.’s sites, infringed upon its trademark (although the dealer never trademarked the name) and would deal irreparable economic damage to the car dealership. U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon granted the injunction, forcing Ballock to shut down the site as well as remove any references to the Nissan dealership from a second Web site, ballock.com.

That order was lifted a few months later.

“What companies do [when] somebody starts criticizing them on the Web, they just think, ‘Oh, this is a little guy, I’m gonna sue him,’ ” said Public Citizen attorney Amanda Frost, who began representing Ballock after the preliminary injunction.

According to Frost, most consumers do not have their own lawyers and, unlike a business, have trouble finding adequate representation. As a result, they usually cease their action once a lawsuit is filed against them, she said.

After the injunction was lifted, Frost filed a motion seeking compensation for damages. In his ruling last month, Clemon explained that Ballock’s Web site was created solely to criticize business, was non-commercial, and there was no way consumers could confuse the site with Crown Pontiac Inc’s.

“This company lost close to $7,000 . . . and hopefully that will be a warning to the next company that prevents someone from complaining,” said Frost.

(Crown Pontiac-Nissan v. Ballock; Attorney: Amanda Frost, Washington, D.C. ) AS

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