Costello v Zavodnik: Promise Kept

Earlier in the week horror writer Michael David Anderson asked me on Facebook for my take on a story about a man sued for $30,000 over a $40 printer sold on Craigslist.  Before I begin my analysis of the Doug Costello/Gersh Zavodnik legal battle, I need to discuss a couple of prefatory notes:

  1. Never ask me for advice or my legal take on Facebook.  I don’t trade my knowledge without a price.  Facebook isn’t a place where the attorney-client privilege is respected, and I have clients I have to take care of.  Plus, there’s always the chance someone might construe what I say as legal advice.  However, Anderson manned up and donated to repairing Prevent a Litter’s mobile spay/neuter unit, which you should do too.  So Michael Anderson gets his article here.
  2. None of this should be construed as legal advice.  As mentioned in #1, that’s stuff you have to pay for.
  3. This involves an Indiana case.  I am a Tennessee attorney.  Therefore, all of this is analysis.  Are we clear?

Now then, let’s move on.  My take on the thirty grand printer lawsuit is simple.  Doug Costello sold a vexatious litigant named Gersh Zavodnik a printer, tried to handle the entire thing without getting an attorney, suffered for it, and will probably continue to suffer.  This is a case study in why you should get a lawyer the moment you receive any sort of lawsuit or legal threat instead of relying on Avvo, RocketLawyer, Legal Zoom or any of the other bullshit “disruptive” legal tech companies.

Back in 2009, Costello sold Zavodnik a printer through Craigslist.  The sale, including shipping, amounted to less than $75.  What Costello didn’t know was that Gersh Zavodnik is an infamous Indiana pro se (self represented) litigant, notorious for filing lawsuit after lawsuit over internet purchases.  It got so bad the Indiana Supreme Court told him “Stop it” two years ago.

Court records show Zavodnik has filed at least 123 civil lawsuits in Marion and surrounding counties since 2008. Most revolve around Internet sales and purchases gone bad.

He also is a party to 34 cases before the Indiana Court of Appeals, including 23 requesting the appointment of special judges to hear his complaints because of previous tiffs with the judges handling those cases.

The 2014 Indiana Supreme Court opinion in Gavodnik v. Harper isn’t the kindest treatment one could expect from jurists.  In the first page, the Court blasts Zavodnik as a “prolific, abusive litigant” who regularly blasts out voluminous filings placing an unnecessary burden on the Court.  In 2013 the Indiana Supremes threatened sanctions, and in the 2014 opinion they declined once again “as a matter of grace.”  However, the Harper opinion provided guidelines for courts on how to sanction abusive litigants like Zavodnik, who repeatedly files suits in order to stop people from “stealing his money.”

The only person on the receiving end of theft was Costello, who found himself liable for approximately $30,000 in damages after failing to respond to Requests for Admissions filed by Zavodnik in Marion Superior Court.  There were two sets: one asking Costello to admit he’d breached a contract to the tune of thirty grand and another asking Costello to admit he’d cause damage meriting awards of $300k to $600k for Zavodnik.

Here’s the thing about Requests for Admissions: If you don’t answer them in a certain time frame in most states, the person who sends the requests can then, as a matter of course, move to have the entire set of admissions legally admitted by law, on the record.  Costello claimed he never received any of the Requests for Admissions, but that didn’t stop Zavodnik from moving to have them all placed on record as true for the purposes of his suit.  Eventually, Costello got smart, hired an attorney after he realized the awards granted Zavodnik might bankrupt him, and then moved to have some of the admissions withdrawn.

The Trial Court granted the six figure admissions as withdrawn, because the damages were for “unspecified reasons.” However, they left the $30,000 plus award in place because it was for a specific admission.  The breach of contract was untenable, and Costello had to pay for that admission.  Hold on, we’re not done yet.

Costello and his attorney appealed the verdict, and the Indiana Court of Appeals blasted the Trial Court for not recognizing Zavodnik’s repeated history of vexatious litigation, skewered them for not adhering to the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2014 guidelines on how to deal with litigants like Zavodnik, and then remanded the entire case back to trial court with instructions to see whether this case should proceed due to Zavodnik’s “repeated, flagrant, and continuing failure to comply with Indiana’s Rules of Procedure.”

The bottom line is this story isn’t finished.  Yet, despite all the hoopla and Costello’s emotional response to Zavodnik’s work, there’s some lessons to be learned here.

  1. Watch who you do business with.  Zavodnik had a history of suing people for online purchases, and Costello still sold the printer.
  2. Hire an attorney the moment you get papers served on you.  If Costello had retained counsel the moment Zavodnik started this bullshit then most of this emotional and legal mess wouldn’t be a problem.  Yet it is, because Costello thought it cheaper to handle the matter himself.  Yes, attorneys cost money, but we also make things go away faster than those who try to handle matters on their own.
  3. Vexatious litigants like Zavodnik exist, and if you’re smart you’ll avoid them by hiring an attorney.  Most of us can make things like this go away quickly, but Costello chose to handle the matter pro se until the time potential damages were six figures.  Get the lawyer first, and the investment will be worth it.

    So there you go.  Assholes like Zavodnik will plague our legal system until more judges start cracking down and issuing sanctions.  It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it’s the truth, and the best way to avoid all the heartache isn’t to handle this matter yourself.  Hire an attorney and you’re automatically find yourself in a better condition than Doug Costello.

    And to quote noted legal scholar Enzo Amore “And You Can’t Teach That.”

Also buy Michael David Anderson’s books “Teddy” and “Wake” here.