Tuesday, January 25, 2022

does disparaging a company cast its principal in a false light?

Chaverri v. Platinum LED Lights LLC, 2022 WL 204414, No. CV-21-01700-PHX-SPL (D. Ariz. Jan. 24, 2022)

Plaintiffs (Mito Red) sell red-light therapy products online, in competition with Platinum (which uses the Volkin defendants’ marketing services). Platinum allegedly hired the Volkin defendants to “engage in a strategic defamation campaign online designed to ruin Plaintiffs’ professional reputation and to divert Plaintiffs’ customers away from their products and to Platinum’s competitive products.”

Among other things, Mito Red alleged that blog posts/video such as “Mito Red Light Therapy Scam: What Are They Lying About?” misrepresented their status as neutral reviews or critiques when in fact they were not, and that Platinum told customers that Mito Red “fabricates statistics, uses different LEDs than claimed, and that the lights are cheap and/or low quality knockoffs of Platinum’s lights.”

The statement that “Leaders come first and then all the followers. Mito Red here is the follower” was puffery. Likewise, Mito Red didn’t sufficiently plead falsity as to a blog post that said that Mito Red claims to have up to a three-year warranty even though other parts of its website “say[ ] otherwise,” and that as a result, customers “might just get scammed” out of redeeming their warranties based on “loopholes” on Mito Red’s website. Though the complaint alleged that Mito Red’s warranty terms are clearly stated on its website, that didn’t address the arguably falsifiable part of the statement—that parts of the Mito Red website cut back on the three-year warranty—and the rest was puffery because uncertain terms like “might” and subjective terms like “scam” and “loophole” were generic and vague.

Statements that “Mito Red literally ripped off [Platinum’s] design” and that “[Mito Red] literally took the framing construction of the Platinum LED lights and just changed the logo on the side. Other than that, it’s the exact same as far as a construction standpoint” were, however, sufficiently alleged to be falsifiable given the use of the word “literally” and the reference to specific product characteristics. “Hopefully, from a legal perspective [Mito Red] will get caught,” required more analysis: it came after “a section of the video in which the narrator alleges that Mito Red’s products use three-watt bulbs, which are less powerful than the five-watt bulbs Mito Red says it uses.” Relying on an earlier case with similar “hope” language, the court found it plausible that the statement could be understood as a statement of fact that Mito Red was acting criminally, making it actionable.

But this was “imprecise, generic, and vague” and thus puffery: “The design of the Mito Red Lights devices is not unique either, they mostly take the designs of their competitors’ devices and then use that in their own devices. And they are not providing the customers with anything new with an act like that.”

For other statements about the wattage/irradiance of Mito Red’s products, it was not conclusory to allege that Platinum’s statements were false because the products were truthfully advertised as five watts: that alleged falsity even if there could be a factual dispute over measurement.

The same results followed for the defamation claims.

Interestingly—and it seems to me wrongly—the court likewise refused to dismiss false light invasion of privacy claims brought by Chaverri, even though he was never named, because “statements made about Mr. Chaverri’s business certainly concern him and are about business matters for which he was directly responsible—a fact reasonably discerned from his role at Mito Red. It is plausible, from the facts alleged in the SAC, that the statements created a false implication about Mr. Chaverri even though he was not expressly mentioned.” A false light claim requires “a major misrepresentation of the plaintiff’s character, history, activities, or beliefs, not merely minor or unimportant inaccuracies.” “[A]llegations of negative reviews by a competitor suffice to plausibly state a claim for false light in this case.”


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