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‘Gripe site’ prompts legal fight

One of the country’s largest insurance companies has filed a lawsuit against a Spokane man and his “gripe site,” saying his online attacks and use of the company’s trademarks have violated its legal rights and damaged its business.

The Web site – FarmersInsuranceGroupSucks.com – is one of more than 60 gripe sites nationwide created by angry customers or individuals to vent anger and lash out against perceived mistreatment.

It was created in early 2003 by Spokane computer programmer Rene R. Guerrero after his wife suffered injuries in a crash with another Spokane driver.

The Web site gives numerous examples of people frustrated and outraged at how Farmers treated them. Guerrero’s Web site also suggests ways citizens can file complaints against Farmers with state agencies.

The legal skirmish in Spokane is a case of “David vs. Goliath,” said David Daggett, one of two Spokane attorneys representing Guerrero. Daggett said the case pits a consumer exercising a constitutional right to criticize a business against a large company seeking to protect its property rights online.

Attorneys for Farmers deny the suit is an attempt to squelch free speech.

“Farmers knows there is a First Amendment right to criticize what it does and how it conducts business, if it’s done fairly and honestly,” said Washington, D.C., attorney Sheldon Klein, who is representing the company.

The suit aims to stop Guerrero from using the Farmers logo on his site, as well as prevent him from making “deceptive or misleading” comments about Farmers, said Klein.

“For instance, his Web site features pictures of his wife’s damaged car, suggesting Farmers wouldn’t approve the repairs,” Klein said.

The dispute behind Guerrero’s Web site is not about the car, said Klein. After the crash, the car was replaced by Farmers, which insured the driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident.

Guerrero never makes clear, added Klein, that he never had an insurance policy with Farmers. “He’s carefully vague to allow people visiting (the site) to come away with the impression he’s been denied coverage,” Klein said. Klein said he will argue that the FarmersInsuranceGroupSucks site is also commercial in nature, preventing it from the usual protections courts give anyone publishing attacks or criticisms of companies and government agencies.

A survey conducted this year by National Law Journal found more than 25 suits have been filed by companies or agencies trying to shut down gripe sites. The publication, which tracks online legal issues, reported only two sites to date have been shut down by courts.

Guerrero, in interviews and in material on the Web site, said the injuries suffered by his wife, Rosi, and resulting problems entitle the couple to more money than Farmers offered.

Rosi Guerrero, also 36, had to go to an emergency room for injuries to her neck, shoulder, ribs and upper body, said Guerrero. Medical bills from that visit came to $719.

But because she was breastfeeding their 6-week-old daughter, Rosi Guerrero was unable to take painkillers and had to hire a housecleaner because she couldn’t do household chores, Guerrero said in an interview.

As she recovered, his wife also was unable to provide normal parenting for the child, Guerrero contends. “My wife couldn’t lift or cradle our daughter at all,” he added. That prevented what he said was the normal “bonding” between mother and child.

The Guerreros asked Farmers for $100,000 in compensation.

The most Farmers ever offered was $1,019, Guerrero said.

The Guerreros declined that offer as insufficient. In March 2003 they filed a small-claims action against the pickup driver. They sought $4,000 for the injuries and related problems. A Spokane County District Court judge awarded them $2,500.

Around the time of the small-claims hearing, Guerrero launched the Web site. It featured a number of links to other sites attacking Farmers, including another gripe site named FarmersReallySucks.com – created by someone else with no connection to Guerrero.

His site helps other consumers learn what their options are when confronting the indifference of large insurance companies, said Guerrero. He gets e-mails from visitors who thank him for helping them, he said.

“Those are the kinds of e-mails that inspire me to fight on and keep my free speech site up,” Guerrero said in an e-mail.

In October 2004 – more than a year after launching his site – Guerrero received a letter from an attorney for Farmers, requesting his site be shut down for trademark violation.

Guerrero e-mailed the company saying he’d close the site and would accept $8,000 “for what Farmers has put us through.”

Instead, Farmers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for Eastern Washington. The amount of money Farmers is seeking from Guerrero will be determined at a trial scheduled for next February.

Klein said Farmers’ case is based largely on material Guerrero featured on his site but later removed.

“Mr. Guerrero has made many changes to the Web site over time,” said Klein. There might yet be material on the site that Farmers considers a violation of its rights, said Klein, “but if I mentioned now what that is, what are the chances it will be there a week from now?”

Klein also said Guerrero’s site, at one time, directed consumers to dump Farmers and select other insurance companies, with links to the competitors on his site.

Attorney Daggett said Klein’s allegations are unfounded.

“Any gripe site has some commercial implications,” Daggett said, “because it tells people why they should dump one company.”

But Guerrero made no money from telling visitors to the Web site to use other insurance companies. “That was not the intent and never was,” said Daggett.

Guerrero declined to identify the company for which he now works. He claims Farmers contacted his employer, trying to use the Web site as a basis for his being fired. Klein said he wouldn’t comment on that allegation.



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