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Negative Review on eBay Costs Florida Man Big Money

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Michael Steadman bought a $44 time clock on eBay, but never bargained for the $15,000 lawsuit he faces because his buyer's review ticked off the seller.

Steadman made the purchase in November 2008. But when he saw the shipped goods didn't match the advertisement, he expressed an opinion about the South Florida lawyer who offered the item on the Internet: "Bad seller; he has the ethics of a used car salesman."

That comment about the clock, which Steadman returned to Elliot Miller of Miami Beach, prompted a $15,000 defamation lawsuit. He said the lawsuit has cost him $7,000 in legal bills and his attorney quit because he could no longer afford to pay him.

"I made the mistake of leaving my honest opinion online," said the 49-year-old owner of Triton Welding&Machine Shop. "The comments are there to let other buyers know who they're dealing with."

But, he said, "it's not safe to say anything online. You don't have a freedom of speech. The laws don't work for us. Because I don't have the money to fight them, I'm losing. It's not right. I'm speechless."

According to the lawsuit filed in February 2009 in Miami-Dade County Court, Steadman's feedback ruined Miller's 100 percent rating and "commercial reputation" on the site and, in light of the refund, amounted to defamation.

The lawsuit said the time clock was "plainly offered for sale with the following language: 'we can not give you any guarantees and must offer it on an as-is, where-is basis only.' "

A review of Miller's eBay profile, emiller1313, shows he received 83 positive ratings in the last year, in which users call him a "great eBayer," and one negative comment. The negative comment, from December and not from Steadman, claims Miller sold an item then "suggested we unload obviously broke unit on another unspecting buyer."

His current rating is 98.8 percent.

Miller's attorney, Judith Frankel, declined to comment.

"We have no comment on the case because it is a matter still pending," she said. "It'll be resolved in the courts."

Steadman said he joined eBay about six months before the time-clock purchase, seeking reasonably priced items for the small welding business he opened about three years ago in Cape Canaveral.

He thought he'd scored a bargain with his winning bid on a "sturdy time clock with all the fixings" for his four employees.

Miller wrote in his advertisement that he found the clock while cleaning out his grandfather's offices. The ad featured a picture of the item and said it had been tested to "confirm" it would imprint a card inserted into its slot.

But Steadman said the item he received didn't match what was advertised: The clock was sent in three pieces of varying models that didn't fit together. It also didn't give time stamps and couldn't be used with a wall-hanging mount. A key shown in the photo and mentioned in the ad didn't work.

Steadman said he complained about the misrepresentation to Miller, who at first refused to refund his money. But a complaint filed with PayPal's buyer protection plan forced Miller to take back the item and pay up, Steadman said.

The eBay Web site invites buyers and sellers to leave positive, negative or neutral feedback ratings and comments because it says online trading depends on trust and reputation. So Steadman said he gave Miller a "negative" rating and left a comment.

Steadman said he thought that was the end of it, until a process server showed up on his doorstep months later with a court summons.

"I warn everyone that goes online not to leave feedback," he said.

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