Should Accusing Someone of Bad Customer Service Get You Sued?

When they didn’t get their album of wedding photos right away, these newlyweds trashed the photographer—all over the Internet.

Noma Bar for Reader's Digest

A month after her October 2014 wedding, Neely Moldovan e‑mailed her photographer and asked for a CD with her wedding photos. According to Neely, the disc was part of the $6,000 package she’d purchased from Andrea Polito, a popular wedding photographer in the Dallas area. However, Polito said that Neely and her husband, Andrew Moldovan, hadn’t filled out the album order form, which she required before delivering the photo disc. After Polito’s studio manager explained the situation, the bride responded, “Sounds great!”

But three weeks later, Neely e‑mailed again to ask for the photos. The manager explained the timeline again and reminded Neely that she was waiting for the couple to order and pay for the album cover, which cost an additional $125 to $225. A few weeks later, on December 29, Andrew e‑mailed, asking for the photos and claiming that the cost of the cover had been included in the package. Sensing the couple’s frustration, the studio offered to give them the CD when the album design was approved (and not, as stipulated in their contract, when it was completed). The Moldovans demanded the photos pronto.

Hoping to smooth things over, Polito herself e-mailed Neely on January 14, 2015, asking for their cover choice. Polito says she intended to waive the additional cost, but the couple still didn’t make a selection. In fact, on that very day, a reporter from NBC 5 was interviewing them. They had sent the station an e-mail with the subject line “Help us get our wedding photos we paid for.” The segment aired two days later. It showed the Moldovans saying that Polito had “cheated” and “scammed” them and that she “blatantly stole money while holding [their] pictures ransom and then adding on extra fees.” Several websites ran the story, and the Moldovans shared a link on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Neely’s beauty and lifestyle blog. The blowback got so bad that Polito took down her Facebook page.

About two months later, on March 18, Polito filed a defamation suit against the Moldovans, claiming that they had “instituted a public smear campaign” intended to “harm” her business. The couple argued that they were simply exercising their right to free speech and that the suit was an attempt to “silence and punish” them.

Did the bride and groom defame their wedding photographer by airing their complaints to the press and on social media? You be the judge.

The Verdict

Yes, they did. Defamation is a difficult claim to prove. In this case, Polito needed to show not only that the couple had harmed her personal and professional reputation but also that they had done it “with malice.” The damage to her business was clear. “Andrea never booked another wedding after that show aired,” says her attorney, Dave Wishnew. “She had to get out of the lease for her office space and let all her staff go.” But it was the Moldovans’ own online comments—such as “We are hoping that our story … completely ruins her business” and, after the NBC segment aired, “No one is ever going to want to hire her”—that cost them. The Dallas District Court agreed with ­Polito’s claims and ruled in July 2017 that the couple had published false statements about Polito and disparaged her business. The court ordered the Moldovans to pay Polito more than $1 million. As Polito’s attorney reminded the jury, “Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”

Make sure you know these 13 everyday things that could get you sued.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest