Selling a used, black-and-white printer through Craigslist seemed simple and straightforward to Doug Costello.
Reading: The gets sued who stole sold
what the 66-year-old massachusetts man didn’t know then was that he would spend the next 6 1/2 years embroiled in a complicated and confusing legal dispute in indiana over that printer which his buyer claimed was broken. .
He would be found liable for around $30,000 in damages. she would pay a lawyer at least $12,000 in her battle to escape the legal mess.
And it all started with a piece of hardware he sold online for around $40 in 2009. With shipping and other charges, the total was less than $75, according to court records.
The purchaser of the printing press was Gersh Zavodnik, a 54-year-old Indianapolis man known to many in the legal community as a frequent plaintiff who also represents himself in court. The Indiana Supreme Court said the “prolific and abusive litigator” has filed dozens of lawsuits against individuals and businesses, often seeking astronomical damages. most, according to court records, involve online sales and transactions.
Zavodnik, a native of Ukraine who moved to the United States in 1987 on a political asylum grant, sued Costello, accusing him of falsely advertising a faulty printer with missing parts and pocketing Zavodnik’s money. According to a complaint filed in Marion Superior Court, Zavodnik unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the issue with Costello, leaving Costello with no choice but to take legal action.
zavodnik declined to speak to indystar. In a previous interview, he said his motivation for filing lawsuits is simple: to seek justice from the people he said stole money from him.
According to court records, Zavodnik initially filed suit in Marion County Small Claims Court, seeking a maximum award of $6,000. zavodnik lost because he threw away the evidence (the printer), according to court records.
costello said he thought that was the end of the legal fight, but zavodnik filed another lawsuit in marion superior court, seeking damages for breach of contract, fraud, conversion, false advertising, and emotional distress.
“I thought that was it,” Costello said of his victory in small claims court. “But no, no, no. Now I’m in another unknown dimension.”
In 2010, Zavodnik sent Costello, who was also representing himself in the lawsuit, documents asking him to admit that he was liable for more than $30,000 for breach of contract, fraud and conversion. The trial court dismissed the case, along with 26 others brought by Zavodnik, who appealed all of those dismissals, according to court records.
The Indiana Court of Appeals in March 2012 revived the lawsuit against Costello and sent the case back to the trial court, where it remained stalled for another nine months until a hearing was scheduled later that year.
zavodnik had also sent costello two more applications for admission. One asked Costello to admit that he conspired with the judge presiding over the case and that he was responsible for more than $300,000. Another asked Costello to admit that he was responsible for more than $600,000.
Because Costello did not respond to all three requests for admissions within 30 days of receiving them, and did not ask for an extension of time, as required by Indiana trial rules, Costello admitted to the liabilities and damages by default. He also did not appear at a July 2013 hearing, according to court records.
costello said he never received the admission applications and was not notified of the hearing.
The case overwhelmed him so much, Costello said, that he finally decided to hire an attorney. In the fall of 2013, Indianapolis attorney Chad Wuertz, who represents other defendants sued by Zavodnik, filed a motion to withdraw the admissions.
The case dragged on again, this time for over a year, without any significant action.
Wuertz said the case went through multiple Marion County judges, many of whom recused themselves. At one point, Zavodnik sought to have a judge removed, and the Supreme Court appointed a special judge from Boone County.
Finally, in March 2015, six years after Costello sold the printer, Special Judge J. Jeffrey Edens issued a ruling. He awarded Zavodnik a judgment of $30,044.07 for breach of contract.
edens acknowledged that the amount is “apparently high” and that the sentence “may seem extreme for breach of contract for the purchase of a printer.” But he wrote that he is limited by how the Supreme Court had previously interpreted a state trial rule, called Rule 36, that sets the 30-day deadline for responding to admission requests.
“what kind of reality am I in now?” Costello said of the ruling. “I don’t know what’s going on. Why don’t I know what’s going on?”
Costello, the owner of a forensic accounting business, appealed the ruling. On May 23, the appeals court issued a harshly worded 13-page opinion in his favor.
The $30,000 in damages “had no basis in reality,” Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote.
zavodnik misused the indiana trial rule, which was meant to reach a resolution more quickly and efficiently, vaidik wrote.
“He did not submit applications claiming $30,000 and $300,000 and $600,000 in damages because he believes those figures are legally justified and thought Costello might agree,” Vaidik wrote. “he sent them because he expected costello not to respond, taking the matter for granted …”
“zavodnik used the rule as a way to avoid such resolution,” vaidik wrote.
costello was on a business trip in ontario, canada, when his lawyer called him to break the news. he said that he nearly collapsed while he was sitting in a restaurant.
“I’ve had this heavy weight, this financial and emotional weight for 6 1/2 years,” Costello said.
zavodnik probably won’t see it that way. A colleague of Zavodnik who is also a pro se litigant (legal jargon for someone who represents himself in court) spoke on his behalf.
Jesse Clements, who said he and Zavodnik are members of a pro se litigation group whose purpose is to “end marion county judicial corruption,” called the appeals court ruling “ridiculous,” “irrational” and “opposed to the law.”
clements describes himself as a highly skilled litigator, and zavodnik sometimes uses clements’ research for his cases. He said the appellate judges “misrepresented” and “handpicked” the issues and facts that support his opinion.
Zavodnik is likely to request a new hearing, Clements said.
costello said he will no longer be selling anything online. he also said that he has no plans to take any legal action against zavodnik.
“I’ve had enough,” he said. “I don’t need him in my life anymore.”
but the case is not over yet.
the court of appeals ordered the trial court to hold a hearing to determine whether the case should be dismissed “based on zavodnik’s repeated, flagrant and continuing failure to comply with indiana rules of procedure.”
that the hearing will not take place before edens, the boone county special judge. he, like many others before him, recused himself.
Special Judge Christopher Burnham of Morgan County is now on the case.
*correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly described jesse clements’ professional relationship with gersh zavodnik. clements conducts investigations for his own cases that sometimes uses zavodnik.
indystar reporter tim evans contributed to this story.
Call Indystar reporter Kristine Guerra at (317) 444-6209. follow her on twitter: @kristine_guerra.
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