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Two years after DirecTV launched a legal onslaught against thousands of alleged satellite television “pirates,” a Florida resident who was sued by the company is now claiming malicious prosecution. In a suit filed last month against DirecTV in state court in Miami, Luc Senatus alleges that, as part of the company’s campaign against piracy, DirecTV is suing viewers for whom it has little proof of wrongdoing. His suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court claims that many alleged wrongdoers are settling — often for $3,500 or more — to avoid engaging in a legal battle with the well-funded corporate foe. “In the vast majority of cases, as well as this case, [DirecTV] did not actually have documentary evidence that plaintiff or the innocent victims were in possession of illegal signal theft equipment,” claims the suit. It goes on that “instead, the demand letters were merely a tactical ploy to extort a settlement.” Senatus, a Miami resident, is the first in Florida to challenge DirecTV’s litigation campaign with a wrongful prosecution lawsuit, but he is not alone in making such a claim across the country. The company is based in El Segundo, Calif. A class action lawsuit was filed this month in U.S. District Court in Denver accusing DirecTV of seeking to extort millions from consumers under the guise of its national campaign against satellite TV piracy. Like Senatus’ claim, the class action asserts that DirecTV is using demand letters to intimidate people into paying $3,500 or more to avoid costly litigation. Similar efforts last year in state and federal court in California, however, were dismissed. Those cases were filed by the same lawyer who initiated the Denver class action, attorney Jeffrey Wilens. “What DirecTV is doing is for a legitimate purpose. They have a right to do it, and should do it,” said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Ian T. Kravitz, who is representing Senatus. “But they can’t cast such a wide net. With our client, and with others, they had no probable cause to bring a lawsuit.” Senatus, who is in his mid-30s, is represented by Kravitz of the Law Offices of William D. Tucker, and by Lawrence J. McGuiness, a solo practitioner in Miami. DirecTV rejected Senatus’ claim. Spokesman Robert Mercer told the Review that the company is only pursuing violators who stole its satellite signal. “We don’t believe the suit has any merit,” he said. Mercer said DirecTV dropped the lawsuit against Senatus because it doubted it could recover the money it was claiming. “That does not mean we think we didn’t have a case against him,” he said. The digital satellite programmer is represented by the Orlando law firm Stump Storey Callahan & Deitrich. Calls to the firm were not returned. Over the past two years DirecTV has waged a massive legal campaign against alleged pirates who stole its signal. Since June 2002 it has filed more than 24,000 lawsuits across the country. The legal assault began after a series of raids on companies that sold decoders enabling viewers to steal DirecTV’s signal. The satellite television operator obtained the names of some 100,000 people in the raids from credit card receipts and other lists. A big target is South Florida, where DirecTV has filed hundreds of lawsuits in federal and state courts. In May 2003 alone, it filed more than 300 suits in U.S. District Court. Since September it has filed more than 100 lawsuits in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and more than 50 in Palm Beach Circuit Court. O.J. Simpson was caught up in the DirecTV dragnet when the company sued him in U.S. District Court in Miami on March 3 for allegedly pirating its signal. Nationally, DirecTV has had four cases go to trial. It has prevailed in each one. In the lone South Florida case to go to trial, the company won a $30,000 award last month against a South Florida man in Miami federal court. DirecTV is the biggest provider of digital satellite television in the country. It offers more than 200 channels to customers who receive programming beamed in from satellites. The company was founded in 1994 and is a division of publicly owned DirecTV Group, which also maintains operations in Latin America. The company is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol DTV. Its stock is 34 percent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group. For the fiscal year ending December 2003, it had $10.12 billion revenues. Its stock has ranged between $15 and $18 a share over the past year. In midday trading Wednesday, the shares changed hands at $15.46. Senatus was initially sued by DirecTV on Oct. 23 in Miami-Dade Circuit Court for illegally tapping into the satellite programmers signal. Senatus’ defense was that he was the victim of credit card theft and that he never purchased a satellite decoder. He contended that a decoder was never shipped to his home nor ever owned one. Kravitz, Senatus’ attorney, claimed DirecTV dropped the lawsuit because it had no basis to bring the claim. In particular, Kravitz said that when a DirecTV executive named James Whalen, whose title is director of signal integrity, was deposed on Jan. 15, it became clear the company had scant evidence. “He gave answers that showed that they had conducted no investigation and they had no evidence my client had done anything wrong,” Kravitz said. DirecTV, which maintains it had a valid claim, voluntarily withdrew the suit less than two weeks later on Jan. 28. On Feb. 6, Senatus responded by filing his wrongful prosecution claim. In the suit he claims malicious institution of a civil proceeding and malicious continuation of a civil proceeding. He is seeking attorney fees and costs from the previous case and unspecified pain and suffering damages. Kravitz also said he may seek punitive damages because he thinks it can shown that DirecTV sued Senatus with a total disregard for the facts. The case is before Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jon I. Gordon. A motion by DirecTV to dismiss the case is pending. DirecTV spokesman Mercer defended the legal campaign and expressed confidence that Senatus’ claim would be defeated. He added that DirecTV must be aggressive to deter piracy but said they are mindful of the fact they are going after people often without the resources to challenge them in court. “We are not cold-hearted about this. We talk to these individuals and determine their ability to pay,” he said. “But the fact is, we believe they are stealing our signal and we have an obligation to protect our business. What they are doing is no different than walking into a Blockbuster and stuffing a bunch of DVD’s into their shirt and walking out the door.”

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