A Vodka Online Defamation Case with a Twist

vodka online defamation lawsuit
There’s a vodka defamation lawsuit fermenting.

The Chicago Reader published an article on the origin of Qino One Vodka in January 2009. An article titled “Seeds of Change,” which was posted on a comment-enabled section of Chicago Reader’s website, is at the center of this online defamation controversy.

Our mixed cocktail of online defamation woe begins in 2008. Business partners Christine Cooney and Jean-Denis Courtin manufactured and distributed a quinoa-based vodka called Qino One. Cooney was a spirits specialist and Courtin was a French restaurateur. A business dispute resulted in Courtin filing suit against Cooney and her husband Daniel.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Allegedly, Daniel Cooney, upon seeing the article in February, felt compelled to post a comment claiming partial ownership of the Qino One Vodka product. In his comments, he described Cartwright as a young and socially-conscious freelance attorney who had been “conned” into “bleeding his partner” via endless exorbitant legal delays and litigation in Federal Court.

Cartwright subsequently responded in March, accusing Cooney of malicious intent and trying to harm Courtin’s business ventures and reputation. She described Cooney’s actions as an act of desperation in an attempt to sway Courtin into dropping the suit.

Now, here’s where a bit of prudence might have saved Cooney from himself.

Less than a week after Cartwright’s response, Cooney threw caution to the wind. He decided it was OK to add his own brand of sarcasm, thanking Ms. Cartwright for joining the conversation. However, he didn’t stop there. He went on to allege that she played a major part in the advancement of Courtin’s “fraud scheme.”

Sharpening his tongue, Cooney suggested Cartwright might even be considered a “metaphoric” partner in crime! He then surmised that she must be expecting a large reward, at rainbow’s end, should she succeed in neutralizing the Cooneys. One might think Mr. Cooney had said his piece – but they’d be wrong.

He then went on to claim that when he asked Cartwright if her client’s truthfulness bore any relevance to her, she said the truth was irrelevant in this instance. Furthermore, he strongly suggested that Cartwright significantly influenced the manipulation and prolonged effects of Courtin’s malicious, fraudulent and destructive behavior.

The lawsuit twixt Cooney and Courtin eventually settled in September. However, Ms. Cartwright’s determination to set other things straight did not, and she subsequently sued Cooney for tortious interference and defamation.

Adding Defamation Injury to Insult

Cooney complained to the Illinois Registration and Disciplinary Committee about Cartwright’s alleged behavior. In addition, he also sent a memo to U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo wherein he accused Cartwright of “making misrepresentations” amid the settlement negotiations. He also claimed Ms. Cartwright lied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the process of acquiring a patent for the Qino One Vodka formula.

During the defamation lawsuit trial, Defendant Cooney argued that his statements to Judge Bucklo and the ARDC were political expression and protected by the ICPA, the Illinois Citizen Participation Act. He argued he only made those comments to government officials in an attempt to receive favorable government actions.

Online Defamation Check Please

However, the District Court determined that while Cooney’s comments may have been protected, his defamation of Ms. Cartwright wasn’t. That, coupled with his intent to inflict emotional distress to Cartwright, were the real issues at hand. Since  defamation and intent was the topic under review, the judge disallowed Cooney’s defense of mere political expression.

So, what have we learned? Perhaps Mom said it best, “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, you had better keep your mouth full of pie….or risk an online defamation lawsuit.”

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