Car dealerships are no stranger to lawsuits—often alleging fraud, breach of contract or violation of federal and state laws. But defamation?
That’s a first for appellate laywer Nancy Gregoire of Birnbaum, Lippman & Gregoire in Fort Lauderdale, who represents Pembroke Pines company Countyline Auto Center Inc., which faced a defamation claim brought by South Florida couple Olga and Stanislav Kulinsky.
The Kulinskys sued Countyline in Feb. 2017, after a salesman who lived in the same building as the couple allegedly told neighbors their 2006 Bentley Continental was repossessed due to financial trouble. In reality, the Kulinksys were up to date with monthly payments, and the car was taken by mistake and was later returned to them.
According to the complaint, which described the Kulinskys’ Russian condominium community as “close-knit,” various neighbors approached them about their alleged financial troubles after speaking with the salesman.
The defamation allegation had been accompanied by two other claims—replevin, a legal remedy that allows the couple to recover the Bentley from The Final Notice Agency Inc., and deceptive and unfair trade practices—both of which went to arbitration. But the trial court disagreed on the defamation claim, ruling that it didn’t fit under the arbitration clause in the dealership’s sales contract, set up to cover the usual conflicts like fraud and breach of contract.
The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed Broward Circuit Judge John B. Bowman’s ruling Nov. 21, sending the couple’s defamation claim to arbitration. According to the per curiam opinion, Countyline’s arbitration clause is broad enough to cover defamation lawsuits after all.
According to the Bentley’s retail installment sales contract, any claim or dispute between customers and employees, agents or other staff relating to a car purchase can be resolved by a “neutral, binding arbitration and not by a court action.”
Counsel to the Kulinksys, Hollywood solo practitioner Yelena Shneyderman, did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
According to Gregoire, arbitration is the preferred route for most car dealerships.
“Corporate America fears juries, rightly or wrongly,” Gregoire said. “Juries tend to side with people they can relate to, and people they can relate to are usually the plaintiff and common folk.
For some of Gregoire’s clients, arbitration, conducted with legal professionals rather than jurors, seems like the most impartial option.
In Gregoire’s view, the Fourth DCA made the proper adjustment—something Countyline’s trial lawyer Glen Goldsmith had been pushing for all along.
“When a trial lawyer makes a great record, then you really are arguing the law, and it makes it pretty easy for us appellate folk,” Gregoire said.
Goldsmith declined to comment on the case.
Read the full court opinion: