Aster Graphics, Inc., Aster’s California-based sales arm, has filed a lawsuit against Steven Giannetta and various Doe defendants for posting “false and defamatory” articles about Aster, including on LinkedIn and TonerNews.com. The lawsuit seeks at least $1 million in damages. The lawsuit was filed on April 23 in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Orange. According to a statement from Aster, the company plans to file a similar lawsuit against TonerNews.com in the State of Florida.
Aster’s statement reads in its entirety:
Once again, Aster Graphics has seen a rise in false statements about its organization that are both slanderous and malicious, including several recent articles authored and/or published by TonerNews.com and Steven Giannetta. These false and misleading statements were made with the intention of damaging Aster’s commercial reputation and ability to generate business. In an action to protect its organization and customers, Aster has decided to take measures and has filed a lawsuit in the state of California against Steven Giannetta with the specific complaints of 1) TRADE LIBEL 2) DEFAMATION – PER SE and 3) FALSE LIGHT. Aster expects to file a similar lawsuit in the State of Florida against TonerNews.com. Aster Graphics will continue to protect its reputation from slander and libel attacks.
Reports Spark Ire
The lawsuit against Mr. Giannetta says that the defendant is an individual residing in Orange County, CA. As noted above, the lawsuit also lists various “John Doe” defendants, “Does 1 through 50.” Aster says these defendants are unknown to it currently but that it “will seek leave to amend this Complaint to allege the true names, identities, and capacities of said Defendants when they have been ascertained.” Aster adds,“Plaintiff is informed and believes, and thereon alleges, that said Defendants are responsible in some manner for the events alleged in this Complaint.”
Aster asserts that it “has developed a good reputation with many retailers who trust their products” and that the company has “built a commercial and business reputation of honesty, transparency, reliability,and fairness.”
Aster alleges that starting in April 2019, “Defendant Giannetta posted numerous false and defamatory articles against Plaintiff Aster online at TonerNews.com and Defendant Giannetta’s LinkedIn account.” The focus of Aster’s ire is articles published by Mr. Giannetta that “alleged that Plaintiff Aster is a ‘Toner Cloner’and sells Toxic toner cartridges.” Aster adds,“Defendant also represented in his articles and posts that Aster sold its products directly to the consumer through multiple brands and accounts on Amazon.”
According to Aster, however, “All those Defendant’s representations are false. Plaintiff Aster’s products are manufactured in compliance with all statutes and regulations. Defendant has never sold any of its products direct on Amazon. All the brands and accounts Defendant referred to in its articles are owned or controlled by different entities.”
The allegedly false and defamatory statements were made with a purpose, says Aster. The end goal, it says, was “to prevent Plaintiff’s current and prospective customers from doing business with Plaintiff and have damaged Plaintiff’s commercial reputations and ability to generate business.”
Causes of Action
As indicated above, Aster asserts three causes of action against Mr. Giannetta. The first is trade libel, a business tort in California defined as publishing a false statement of fact that intentionally disparages the quality of the services or products of the plaintiff’s business and that results in pecuniary damages to the plaintiff. Here, Aster claims that Mr. Giannetta made to customers, prospective customers, and retailers “false and misleading statements that would be clearly or necessarily understood to have disparaged the quality of Plaintiff’s products and honest business practice.” Aster alleges that Mr. Giannetta either knew the statements were not true or “acted with reckless disregard of the truth or falsity of the statements.” Aster asserts it suffered direct financial harm because “customers, perspective customers, and retailers ceased purchasing products or doing business with Plaintiff in reliance of the statements.”
The second cause of action is defamation per se. The Digital Media Law Project indicates that in California the elements of a defamation claim include publishing a statement of fact that is false, unprivileged, and has a tendency to injure or causes “special damage.” Also, the defendant’s fault in publishing the statement must amount to at least negligence. Defamation per se basically means that the defamation is so egregious that the statements are assumed to harm the plaintiff’s reputation without further need to prove that harm.
In the section of the report claiming defamation, Aster refers to the articles about Aster being a “Toner Cloner,” selling “Toxic toner cartridges,” and selling its products directly through multiple brands and accounts on Amazon. Aster alleges, “Defendant’s libelous writing and slanderous statements are defamation per se because when considered alone, they tend to subject Plaintiff to distrust, ridicule, contempt and disgrace, and are injurious to Plaintiffs’ trade and professional reputations.” Aster says the defendant “acted intentionally, maliciously, willfully, and with the intent to injure Plaintiff” and that it has been “harmed by the loss of the economic value in goodwill and its reputation that it had built over many years in the industry.”
The third cause of action is false light. According to the Digital Media Law Project, under California law, a person can sue for false light when something highly offensive is implied to be true about them that is actually false. It is different from defamation, under which the statement must be actually false, in that it is about “false implications.” Here, Aster again points to the same articles and asserts, “The false light created by the publication would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position,” and “Defendant knew that the publication would create a false impression about Plaintiff or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.” Aster again asserts that Mr. Giannetta and the Doe defendants “acted intentionally, maliciously, willfully, and with the intent to injure Plaintiff” and that Aster has been “harmed by the loss of the economic value in goodwill and its reputation that it had built over many years in the industry.”
Under all three causes of action, Aster claims that the harm caused to Aster amounts to “not less than $1,000,000.”
Aster concludes by asking the court to issue judgment against Mr. Giannetta, for “corrective advertising in which Defendant must communicate to Plaintiff’s customers that the referenced representations were falsely made,” damages “to the fullest extent permitted by law, but not less than $1,000,000,” punitive damages due to the “willful, wanton, and intentional nature of the Defendants’ conduct,” pre-judgment and post-judgment interest, and attorneys’ fees and costs.
While the media consistently faces criticism over the veracity of certain reports, our small corner of the industry—printer hardware and consumables—typically has not seen such criticism rise to the level of a plaintiff bringing a lawsuit alleging libel or defamation.
Proving these types of cases can be challenging for a plaintiff, so we think this lawsuit and the second one Aster indicates it will file against TonerNews.com demonstrate that Aster felt that the reports were egregious enough and the damage to its business was extensive enough that it had no other recourse than to take legal action. Such litigation also demonstrates a degree of certainty on the part of the plaintiff that the reports in question were indeed false because, of course, one of the main defenses in such lawsuit is that the reports in question were true. Aster must be at least reasonably confident that it can demonstrate the falsity of the claims. Time will tell whether we get the chance to see Aster present evidence along these lines if the litigation proceeds to that point.